Pine Island (St. Helena)
The culturally and historically rich 498-acre Pine Island and St. Helenaville property has two listings on the National Register of Historic Places, including for its archeology and architecture, and it is one of the last large, relatively undeveloped tracts on St.Helena Island in Northern Beaufort County. Surrounded by the Morgan River, Village Creek, and Eddings Creek in the St. Helena Sound, this land has served as a family retreat and hunting and timberland for half a century, but the owners have been looking to sell for a number of years.
In October of 2021, Pine Island GC, LLC signed an option to purchase the property for $21,000,000 to build an exclusive golf club and resort. However, the proposed golf resort is in direct conflict with the community-based zoning standards, the Cultural Protection Overlay (CPO), that have been in place on St. Helena Island for over 20 years.
What is the CPO?
The Cultural Protection Overlay (CPO) is a community-driven zoning tool that was adopted in the late 1990s directly in response to the land conversion taking place on surrounding sea islands and, in particular, the golf resorts and gated communities spreading across Hilton Head Island and more acutely on Fripp Island, Harbor Island, and Dataw Island in Northern Beaufort County. The St. Helena community made clear that they had a different vision for the future of their landscape.
The CPO zoning district expressly prohibits golf courses, gated communities, resorts, and restrictions to waterways and culturally significant locations on St. Helena Island. Its intent is to prevent gentrification and the loss of Gullah/Geechee culture and land, specifically acknowledging “St. Helena’s historic cultural landscape and its importance as a center of Beaufort County’s most notable concentration of Gullah culture.”
The CPO district boundaries include the entirety of St. Helena Island, including Pine Island and St. Helenaville. It serves as additional protection over and above base T2Rural zoning and is unique to St Helena, developed by and for the St. Helena community in the 1990s and reinforced in years since. The overlay was established with the first Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan and has guided development for St. Helena for over twenty years.
Protecting St. Helena
St. Helena is home to Beaufort County’s largest concentration of Gullah/Geechee people and landowners. The CPO protects the community from gentrification through development practices deemed incompatible by the community. The CPO explicitly prohibits gated communities, resorts, and golf courses because these particular land uses are directly linked to increasing residential property taxes, which contributes to the loss of Gullah/Geechee land ownership, and thereby Gullah/Geechee culture.
Indeed, this was documented by the National Park Service in the findings used to establish the federally designated Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor:
The demarcation between planned resort communities and traditional rural agricultural lands is dramatic. Resorts, golf courses, and coastal suburban development on the islands led to steadily increasing property values and skyrocketing taxes. Island economies changed from rural subsistence farming to a service-based economy. Native islanders were often unable to bear the tax burden, and many were forced to leave their homes. Not just Gullah Geechee people but all islanders of modest means, black and white, have been adversely affected by the rising taxes caused by development and population growth.
National Park Service. Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement. Atlanta, GA: NPS Southeast Regional Office, 2005.
In November 2021, Beaufort County adopted an updated Comprehensive Plan: Envision Beaufort County 2040 Comprehensive Plan. The Plan places a high priority on protecting the Gullah/Geechee community and rural way of life on St. Helena and the surround sea islands.2040_CompPlan_St Helena
The St. Helena Spotlight section notes how rapid coastal development is the greatest threat to Gullah/Geechee communities, recognizing that high-end developments along waterfront properties make it difficult to access traditional fishing and hunting grounds and increase property taxes. The plan is crystal clear about the dangers of incompatible development on St. Helena:
The primary threat to the long-term viability of Beaufort County’s Gullah/Geechee communities is land development. Implementing land use policies that concentrate growth in urban areas and protect rural land from suburban development, are the most important actions the County can take to protect its unique Gullah/Geechee heritage.
Therefore, one of the recommended actions of the plan to further protect St. Helena is to assess and strengthen the CPO. To accomplish this, Beaufort County recently sat a community-led CPO Committee, which began meeting in December 2022.
Timeline of Relevant Events
On November 14, 2022, Beaufort County Council approved the formation of the CPO Committee made up of St. Helena Island community member representatives to achieve one of the high priority items and recommended actions of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan: protecting the Gullah/Geechee community and rural way of life on St. Helena by assessing and strengthening the CPO.
Since the initial meeting of the CPO Committee on December 13, 2022 and present, Beaufort County administration submitted a proposed text amendment to the CPO that would allow golf courses, gated communities, and resorts on St. Helena, all of which are currently prohibited uses under the CPO, if the property is 50+ acres and the developer enters into a Development Agreement with the County. Prior to that, Pine Island GC, LLC applied for a zoning map amendment to remove the Pine Island and St. Helenaville property from the CPO zoning district boundaries to allow development of an exclusive, high-end golf resort.
At their January 5th 2023 meeting, before a diverse coalition of St. Helena Island residents, community advocates and stakeholders, the Beaufort County Planning Commission unanimously recommended denial of the CPO amendment. The issue was then taken up by the County’s Community Services and Land Use Committee on January 9th, 2023. Before another packed house, the Community Services and Land Use committee moved to postpone the text amendment until their April 10th, 2023 meeting and to send it to the CPO committee for a recommendation.
Under current law, golf courses, resorts and gated communities are prohibited within the CPO zoning district on St. Helena Island. County administration’s proposed “exception” amendment would cancel the overlay’s restrictions on large tracts of land and inject uncertainty into the process through transactional negotiations on every parcel that comes up for consideration. Opening St. Helena up to exceptions on 50+ acre tracts would expose more than 5,613 acres of land to gentrifying resorts, gated communities, and golf course developments.
Such alterations to this overlay would make it close to impossible to uphold the goals of the CPO and to maintain the traditional rural lifestyle of the island. In short, the amendment would rip out the heart and soul of the CPO, leaving the values it was designed to protect at great risk.
The St. Helena community is voicing their opposition to these destructive changes to the CPO and the proposed Pine Island golf resort loudly and clearly. Notably, the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition as well as the Historic Penn Center have each gained thousands of signatures on their respective petitions. Governor Henry McMaster also shared his concerns, noting that the text amendment would “signal open season” for development on the island.
Local Senator Chip Campsen and Congresswoman Nancy Mace expressed their concerns as well, joining the groundswell of public opposition from organizations, neighborhood associations, historians, and native islanders, including the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, Historic Penn Center, Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, Chief Se’khu Hadjo Gentle of the Yamassee Indian tribe of Seminoles, Preservation South Carolina, Savannah Archaeological Alliance, Atlanta Preservation Center, Dulamo Homeowners Association, Coastal Conservation League, Beaufort County Open Land Trust, South Carolina Environmental Law Project, Historic Beaufort Foundation, Sea Island Corridor Coalition, Hilton Head Island Audubon Society, South Carolina Wildlife Federation, and South Carolina Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
How to Get Involved
Get engaged and help get the word out about this looming threat to historic St. Helena Island and the Gullah/Geechee culture that is so closely tied to the land.
- Sign and share petitions
- Show up and express your support to Protect St. Helena and strengthen the CPO at:
- CPO Committee meeting February 21st, 2023 at 5:30 p.m., St. Helena Library
- County Land Use Committee meeting April 1oth, 2023 at 3:00 p.m., 100 Ribaut Rd, Beaufort.
- Write to local, state, and federal officials to express concerns and ask for their support and/or engagement
- Write Letters to the Editor to the local newspaper
- The Island Packet ([email protected])
- The Post & Courier ([email protected] & [email protected])
- The Island News ([email protected])
- The Bluffton Sun ([email protected])
In the News
Development has St. Helena residents worried. ‘We don’t want to become another Hilton Head’ (Island Packet, Dec. 17, 2022)
Developer wants golf course and resort on St. Helena Island; Penn Center says no (Explore Beaufort SC, Dec. 20, 2022)
Uphold the Integrity of the Cultural Protection Overlay on St. Helena Island, Op-Ed by Victoria Smalls, Executive Director, Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (Island Packet, Dec. 28, 2022)
Potential gated community, golf course on St. Helena likely subject at County Planning meeting (Island News, Jan. 4, 2023)
The wrong type of investment for St. Helena Island, Letter to Editor by Marilyn Hemingway, CEO/President, Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce (Island News, Jan. 4, 2023)
‘Protect the area’: Gov. McMaster weighs in on controversial proposed St. Helena development (Island Packet, Jan. 4, 2023)
McMaster speaks out against St. Helena Island changes, fears ‘open season’ for developers (Post & Courier, Jan. 5, 2023)
Planning commission rejects change that would bring new development to St. Helena Island (Live 5 News, Jan. 5, 2023)
Panel rejects changes to St. Helena Island protections after vocal residents turn out (Island Packet, Jan. 6, 2023)
Beaufort Planning Commission rejects large St. Helena development plan (WSAV, Jan. 6, 2023)
Beaufort residents concerned about proposed Cultural Protection Overlay amendment (Fox 28 Savannah, Jan. 6, 2023)
Gov. McMaster speaking out about proposed St. Helena development plan (WJBF, Jan. 8, 2023)
Like ‘awakened piranha,’ opponents continue to rally against St. Helena development (Island Packet, Jan. 10, 2023)
Changes to CPO postponed until April (Island News, Jan. 11, 2023)
Taxation without representation, Letter to Editor by Jerry Floyd (Island News, Jan. 11, 2023)
Beaufort officials recommend changes that could allow golf resort on St. Helena Island (Post & Courier, Jan. 13, 2023)
It’s an affront’: Roll over for the beginning of the end for St. Helena Island, Editorial by David Lauderdale (Island Packet, Jan. 17, 2023)
State leaders, residents oppose zoning changes on St. Helena Island (WTOC, Jan. 19, 2023)
Save Beaufort County by demanding controlled growth (Island News, Jan. 25, 2023)
Gullah/Geechee Nation’s St. Helena Island Story Map
Penn Center National Historic Landmark District and National Register of Historic Places Designation
Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition
Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
National Park Service Reconstruction Era National Historical Park
Historic Resources of St. Helena Island, ca. 1740-ca. 1935
ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (SCDNR & NOAA)
Jessie White · [email protected] · · 843-522-1800 · · Grant McClure · [email protected] ·