Bay Point Island was removed from the Town of Hilton Head Island’s 2017 priority list by the Town Council on Tuesday, just days after questions were raised in an article by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette about a personal and financial relationship among the mayor, a council member and a key player for the project.
Town staff will review an annexation request for the 347-acre island, which is the proposed site of a $100 million five-star resort run by Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas out of Bangkok, Thailand, council members said Tuesday. However, it was the only item removed from a list of priorities set forth for 2017 prior to council approval.
Public perception was one reason cited for removing it from the list.
“I think there have been a series of comments in the newspaper that have not addressed the decision accurately on part of the council, but what we are doing today is saying that Bay Point is off our priority list and see what happens after that,” council member David Ames said, though he didn’t specifically address the weekend story in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
Ames said town staff, the town’s Planning Commission and possibly a subcommittee would vet the project prior to council reviewing it.
“Because there has been some misconception on part of the public about Bay Point, it would be clear to the process that staff would be the first step in providing us an overview,” Ames said.
Mayor David Bennett said Ames’ comments regarding staff review of the project were “spot on.” Ames is a close political ally of Bennett.
The weekend story in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette cited State Ethics Commission records that showed Bennett and Ames paid Tom Gardo and his Hilton Head firm, Denarius Group Inc., more than $27,000 through their election campaigns for work during their elections. The town also paid Gardo’s firm about $2,500 to write speeches for Bennett after he was elected, according to records obtained by the newspapers.
Gardo, the main spokesman for the Bay Point Island project, was often the official who contacted Town Council members when setting up a series of private meetings for the project before a petition for annexation was unanimously accepted by the council in September. In the newspapers’ weekend story, Bennett described Gardo as an adviser to him as mayor and a friend.
Bennett and council members Tom Lennox and Bill Harkins all made comments during Tuesday’s regular council meeting in support of removing the project from the priorities list, which guides the council annually. While not directly criticizing Bennett and Ames in the newspapers’ weekend story, Lennox and Harkins said they would have handled the situation involving Gardo differently.
The Bay Point Island project has been on hold as the owner of the island removes debris from Hurricane Matthew, Gardo previously said. Before Tuesday’s action, Gardo said development could be presented to the town in early spring.
Several months of public hearings and meetings would need to take place before a council vote on the issue, town officials previously said.
Town of Hilton Head Island 2017 priorities
- Visioning Process: Start the town’s vision process.
- Heirs’ Property Consultant: Hire a consultant to review the town’s land management ordinance and how it affects heirs’ property on the island.
- Regionalization: Explore options to work with other cities and county elected officials.
- Workforce Availability: Examine housing and transportation issues limiting workforce on the island.
- Infrastructure: Review of stormwater plans, and scheduling of private road improvements.
- Cultural, Entertainment, Arts and Heritage: Hiring of a program director along with recommendations on an arts venue from the Venue Committee.