Developers hoping to build a remote resort on a Beaufort County barrier island pitched the public on an environmentally friendly plan they say will improve the property, but many remain skeptical of any plan to build in the sensitive area.
A standing-room crowd heard for the first time from the owners and prospective developers of Bay Point Island during a presentation at St. Helena Branch library Tuesday. The island’s principal owner, Philippe Cahen, and his partners plan a long-term lease with Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas to manage the destination. The resort will include dozens of villas and resort amenities on 347 acres off St. Helena Island at the mouth of the Port Royal Sound.
The resort would require special approval from a county board as an ecotourism use. The designation comes with certain rules requiring 85 percent of the development be dedicated to open space and limiting the scope and number of buildings.
Cahen has owned the island for 20 years as part of a group that includes Timothy Pitcher, president of Luckett and Farley Development, and local caretaker Ned Tupper, a longtime Beaufort attorney and municipal judge.
The estimated $100 million resort would create more than 300 full-time and part-time jobs paying from minimum wage to six figures for top management positions, representatives said. No more than 50 one or two-level villas would be built off site and placed off the beach in the tree line.
Developers proposed ferrying guests to the island from Port Royal, St. Helena Island and Skull Creek on Hilton Head Island.
Amid pushback from environmental groups, the development’s representatives touted Six Senses’ commitment to reducing waste, using alternative energy, instituting environmental education programs and requiring guests to agree to an environmental code of conduct.
“When Six Senses gets involved, the environment improves under their stewardship,” Pitcher said.
But some questioned whether it was wise to build at all on an island where the sand routinely shifts and erodes, and storms and king tides could threaten structures. Much of the crowd Tuesday wore stickers imploring decision-makers to “Save Bay Point.”
“This is just the wrong place for this development,” said Rikki Parker, South Coast director for the Coastal Conservation League.
Parker suggested Six Senses’ model might be better suited to resurrect failed resorts on other islands that are already developed. She questioned whether allowing such a resort as an ecotourism use under rural zoning would set a precedent for nearby St. Helena Island, much of which is farmland.
County Councilman York Glover, a St. Helena native, hosted the meeting to give developers a chance to share with local residents. Glover said he was keeping an open mind about the proposal until hearing more.
Multiple St. Helena residents questioned the development’s effect on the Lands End community on the south end of St. Helena, and whether resort guests would be trafficked through nearby boat landings popular with locals.
Marquetta Goodwine, a St. Helena resident and advocate for Gullah Geechee traditions and culture, told Pitcher she took offense to the suggestion that the resort and its guests could partner with local farms and fishermen — and that Gullah culture was on a list of possible guest experiences.
She started an online petition that had been signed by 1,000 people in the week before the meeting.
“They disagree with the idea of you presenting this as sustainable,” Goodwine said. “What is sustainable is already there.... The people who live here already know how to live in balance with the natural environment.”
Ecotourism is an allowed use under the county zoning for the property but requires special approval from the county zoning board. Bay Point’s owners could build beachfront homes on 51 designated lots under current zoning without any additional approval, they said Tuesday.
Pitcher said there’s “no question” the proposal is within zoning rules for ecotourism and that he hoped a decision would come by the end of the year. Preliminary work on the island could begin next spring on a project that could take a few years.
He said the former state port terminal being redeveloped in Port Royal would be a logical place to ferry materials to the development.
Six Senses is based in Bangok, Thailand, and operates 17 properties throughout the world, said Amber Marie Beard, a former executive with the resort who now consults for the company. The company is preparing to open its first U.S. hotel in New York City, and Bay Point would be its first resort in the United States, she said.
A Six Senses resort was also the plan when Hilton Head Island officials considered annexing Bay Point in 2016. Town policymakers removed the proposal from a list of town priorities the following year amid public opposition and some environmental concerns.
The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet reported at the time on a potential conflict of interest involving the relationship between then-Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett, council member David Ames, and Tom Gardo, who was then a spokesperson for the Bay Point owners.
Gardo had been paid to work on campaigns for the elected officials and to write speeches for Bennett after the mayor’s election, the newspapers reported at the time. Gardo was later involved in setting up some of the private meetings between Bay Point representatives and council members before an annexation petition was submitted.
Bay Point representatives had also previously met behind closed doors with Port Royal officials to pitch the idea of the town annexing the island. Town officials said at the time that the resort’s tax dollars would have been a boost to its small budget, but that there were concerns about infrastructure on the island if the project failed. They also said Bay Point wasn’t within the town’s agreed-upon growth boundaries.
Pitcher said Tuesday the development wasn’t rejected by either municipality but that developers had stepped back and spent the past several years refining plans.
Bay Point has only one building, a beach cottage with a generator for power, but otherwise is without utilities. The island’s beach has long been a destination for local boaters to anchor and fish, an activity developers said could continue on the public areas of the beach if the resort is built.