A Resort on Bay Point Island?
What’s the Latest?
In March 2023, the SC Court of Appeals granted the dismissal of Bay Point Island, LLC’s appeal, which was voluntarily initiated by the developer and consented to by all parties. By dismissing the appeal, the developer forfeited all rights to further challenge that permit denial, bringing us a monumental step closer to the possibility of a permanent conservation outcome for the island!
The Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously to deny the “ecotourism” special use permit for the developers proposing a resort on Bay Point Island on September 24th, 2020! This marked a major stride in the right direction for getting permanent protections on the island.
However, in November, 2020 the developers appealed that decision. The Conservation League and the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association both successfully intervened in the appeal, helping Beaufort County to uphold and affirm that the ZBOA made the correct decision.
Questions and Answers on the status of potential development on Bay Point Island
Since 2016, developers have had their sights set on developing a resort on Bay Point Island, a vulnerable barrier island at the mouth of the Port Royal Sound. The island has no infrastructure—no roads, water, sewer, or power—and is only accessible by boat or air. Beaufort County’s Comprehensive Plan does not anticipate growth in or around this area.
Special Use Permits Denied
The developers submitted their special use application for “ecotourism” and the Zoning Board of Appeals reviewed their application and voted on September 24, 2020. After four hours of comments from the public and presentation from the developers, the Zoning Board voted unanimously to deny the special use! You can watch the live stream of that meeting here. The discussion around Bay Point starts at the 1:18:00 timestamp.
What’s the resort plan?
Six Senses, a resort and hotel developer out of Bangkok, Thailand, is planning to operate fifty beach bungalows, four spa and wellness centers, several restaurants, and areas for listening to music and watching movies—all to be constructed on the island. A solar field is included in preliminary designs. Ten septic fields are also planned on the small island, along with stormwater ponds.
View the proposed plans here.
What’s at risk for Beaufort County?
The financial impacts of this development on Beaufort County taxpayers could be significant. The island is erosional and beach management costs will be high. By way of example, Hilton Head Island has spent $90 million nourishing its beaches. Frequent nourishments at Bay Point Island would be necessary to keep the island’s shoreline intact. Should the development fail or suffer significant damage from a storm, Beaufort County would be responsible for repairing or removing existing structures, roads, docks, and other infrastructure.
The county would also be on the hook for providing emergency services including fire, police, and EMT. County officials have stated that their response time to the island, even under the best circumstances, is over one hour.
Why the developer’s plan falls short:
Wildlife impacts: Development would harm a nationally designated Important Bird Area. At high tide from December through March, Bay Point Island holds around 5,000 shorebirds and that number can sometimes reach 8,000. This is only possible because there is minimal human disturbance on Bay Point Island. Species that visit the island include piping plover, semiplamated plover, red knot, sanderling, short-billed dowitcher, whimbrel, willet, western sandpiper, Wilson’s plover, dunlin, and American oystercatcher. As the Audubon Society has noted: “no other area within miles approaches the holding power of this island and inlet to shorebirds in winter.” The current property owner has not conducted a thorough species inventory during the twenty years he has owned the island. In addition, Bay Point Island serves as valuable sea turtle nesting habitat. During the summer of 2019, 107 loggerhead sea turtle nests were recorded on the island. Any development would harm these important populations.
Infrastructure: Water and sewer would be expensive and impractical to provide to the island. The developer proposes 10 septic areas on the island; many of these areas are close to the marsh. On an island where the impacts of sea level rise are heightened, septic fields could be an environmental catastrophe.
The resort would also need electricity. The solar field depicted on sketch plans is insufficient to generate the amount of electricity the resort indicates it will use. The size limitation is likely due to impervious surface limitation detailed in Beaufort County’s Community Development Code, which the developer has already maxed out. Generators will be used to fuel the gap in power. That fuel will be delivered to the island by some combination of planes, boats and vehicles. Ultimately, Beaufort County is responsible for the long-term liability of these operations.
Erosion: The island is highly erosional, and its shoreline is constantly changing. The impacts of saltwater intrusion are plainly clear when reviewing aerial photography over the last decade—the maritime forest on the island has lost more than 50% of its canopy, evidence that saltwater is infiltrating the root systems by way of groundwater and killing the forest. In an era of rising seas and more frequent storm events, developing an island like Bay Point is short-sighted. The question is not if erosion will take a toll on the development, but when.
Waste: The facility plans to generate around 700 pounds of waste every day, which will be carried on and off island during shift changes. This means more traffic on local roadways and the potential for harmful pollutants to make their way into the environment.
Groundwater withdrawal: Current plans anticipate using 100,000 gallons of water each day. About 2/3 of water use will come from effluent or rainwater collection, but 33,000 gallons per day will still need to be withdrawn from a local aquifer, straining already depleted groundwater resources and exacerbating saltwater intrusion.
Any development on an erosional barrier island comes with extreme risk to the local environment. Bay Point is one of our last undeveloped barrier islands and is important for local wildlife and the Gullah-Geechee fishing community. Its development would also be costly to Beaufort County.
What can you do to save Bay Point Island?
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In 2016, Hilton Head Town Council voted unanimously to accept an application for the annexation of Bay Point Island, a vulnerable barrier island at the mouth of the Port Royal sound. After two storms and learning more about the historical and ecological significance of this highly erosional island, Hilton Head Town Council backed away from the project. To date, the island remains largely untouched.
But as is so often the case, bad ideas don’t go away – they just find new homes. In this case, the developers are now targeting Beaufort County. Unbelievably, they are attempting to sell the development as “eco-tourism,” an allowable use under the island’s rural zoning. But a boutique hotel and spa do not constitute “eco-tourism”; they are just elements of a high end resort.
In early December 2019, Beaufort County planning staff recommended denial of the Six Senses’ application.
In early 2020, Beaufort County reversed its decision and recommended approval of the application, with some major conditions.
In September 2020, the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeal denied the application.