Monday, May 8, 2023 News · Press Releases

Beaufort County Council confirms original community vision for St Helena Island 

by Lily Abromeit

Decades ago, the St. Helena community made clear that its vision for the island’s future was a place where generations of Gullah/Geechee families could continue to sustain their rich farming, hunting, and fishing culture. This vision does not include golf courses, gated communities, and resort developments, which threaten to interrupt the cultural way of life for this community. 

Today, a third and final reading by Beaufort County Council of clarifying revisions to the Cultural Protective Overlay (CPO) confirmed that these types of developments have never been a part of the everlasting vision of St Helena’s identity. 

“The Cultural Protective Overlay’s clarifying language reinforces the overlay’s original purpose and intent, that St. Helena Island is for the people, not for developers,” said Faith Rivers James, Executive Director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. “The St. Helena community made an informed choice to reject this type of development twenty years ago; and they have not changed their minds.  We support the people of St. Helena in defending their culture, history and identity.” 

The Conservation League has worked with the Penn Center and the St. Helena community since the 1990s, continuously supporting community-led efforts to conserve the land and protect the culture of this special place.   

“Since 1862 Penn Center and St. Helena Island have mutually supported each other. We have great admiration for the island’s heritage, culture, and history. St Helena’s story is also Penn Center’s story. We are keenly aware of what landscape, waterways, the sea, and the land means to the islanders,” said Deloris Pringle, Chair of Penn Center’s Board of Trustees. “Penn Center’s policies and practices have always supported, protected, and respected the island and its people and the role they have played in maintaining and conserving the natural environment. It is a place like none other and we are honored to stand with St. Helena Island and uphold and reinforce the Cultural Protection Overlay.” 

Golf courses, gated communities, and resort developments directly threaten the heritage of the people who live in this important sea island community, which is why these uses have been prohibited by the CPO since its inception in the 1990s. It is also why St. Helena has Beaufort County’s most notable concentration of Gullah/Geechee culture and land ownership today.  

From the beginning, St. Helena Island’s community-led CPO has prohibited the development of golf courses, resorts, and gated communities because these uses are tied to rising property taxes, loss of history and culture, environmental degradation, and the displacement of Gullah/Geechee people. It is imperative for Beaufort County to uphold this policy which has safeguarded rural landscapes and community quality of life for over two decades.  

The clarifications to the CPO add historical context about the island and Gullah/Geechee culture and highlights threats posed by increased development pressures.  

“This important clarification, which codifies protections into law, is directly a result of the dedicated work and passion of the St. Helena community and it has been an honor to stand alongside and support so many island residents, community advocates, business leaders and groups in this effort,” said Jessie White, South Coast Office Director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. “We commend the St. Helena Island resident-led Cultural Protective Overlay committee for drafting language that captures the spirit and essence of St. Helena Island’s cultural, ecological, and historical significance and identity. 

White said she is thankful for Beaufort County’s leadership, both elected officials and staff members, hearing the cries of their constituents and neighbors and ultimately making an informed decision that best serves the interest of both St. Helena Island and broader Beaufort County.  

“They had the foresight to listen to the community’s vision in the past and have done it again here,” White said. 

In additional to key community members, the grassroots coalition of organizations includes: Historic Penn Center, Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce, Beaufort County Open Land Trust, South Carolina Environmental Law Project, Sea Island Corridor Coalition, Historic Beaufort Foundation, Coastal Expeditions Beaufort, Friends of Hunting Island, Hilton Head Island Audubon Society, South Carolina Wildlife Federation, Atlanta Preservation Center, Preservation South Carolina, Savannah Archaeological Alliance, Dulamo Homeowners Association, South Carolina Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Beaufort Soil & Water Conservation District, Coastal Conservation League. 

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