Hurricane Matthew underscores the need to thoroughly consider future development — not the least of which is the annexation and development of Bay Point Island.
Bay Point, on the other side of Port Royal Sound from Hilton Head Island, is roughly 390 acres including marsh, with about 60 acres of developable high ground. This ever-shifting spit of land is only accessible by boat and is home to shorebirds and sea birds, a stopping ground for fisherman and an essential piece of a network of rural and protected properties, including southeastern St. Helena, St. Phillips, and Pritchards islands.
In early September, and with little advance warning, Hilton Head Town Council announced its intention to reach across the sound to annex Bay Point. The annexation would enable Six Senses, developers from Bangkok, to have access to the services and zoning necessary to build an “eco-resort.” Preliminary plans call for tourist access from Hilton Head, and employee and construction access from St. Helena.
The annexation of Bay Point Island does not make sense from an environmental, planning or financial perspective.
Maintaining Bay Point Island as a natural area is in the public’s best interest. Barrier islands like Bay Point are the first line of defense during storms, reducing effects of wind and waves by absorbing a storm’s energy. Without homes, clubhouses or tennis courts on Bay Point, substantial property damage was averted. By comparison, the devastation on Harbor Island illustrates in stark relief the folly and consequence of over-development on barrier islands.
Small barrier islands, while ephemeral, are of high ecological value as well. Many of the same birds feeding at Mitchelville beach or flying over Hilton Head take shelter on Bay Point Island. According to South Carolina Audubon Society, Bay Point “is particularly important to shorebirds since the area has little human disturbance … No other area within miles approaches the holding power of this island and inlet to shorebirds in winter.” Hilton Head should discourage, not enable, the destruction of ecologically sensitive islands like Bay Point.
Annexing and building on Bay Point does not make sense from a planning or fiscal perspective, either. Planning 101 tells us that unwise annexations occur when a municipality annexes properties in remote, rural areas that lack existing infrastructure and public services such as water, sewer and police and fire protection. You cannot get much more remote than Bay Point.
If you don’t believe the planners, then look to our own local annexation experience. The 1990s and 2000s were replete with rural land annexations: Mobley, Binden and Airport Junction on Lady’s Island are just a few. Since then, Port Royal, Beaufort, Yemassee, Beaufort County and the Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority developed a coordinated growth and annexation strategy. Growth and service boundaries have been adopted and the Northern Regional Plan Implementation Committee was formed. All of these entities are working and planning together. Port Royal wisely refused when Bay Point developers knocked.
Finally, Bay Point Island is an incredibly expensive place for development. The developer and Town may promise that few if any costs will be incurred by the public. However, all agreements can be changed, and taxpayers have bailed out failed developments time and time again. In the cases of Okatie Marsh, New Leaf LLC, Mobley and Binden, the public bailout was in the form of conservation purchases. Emergency services, repair of failed sewer systems, beach renourishment, sandbags, groins, sea walls and dock repair — these are all things that could end up on your tax bill.
Hilton Head should not ignore the ecological values, good planning or sensible fiscal decisions.
If there is any silver lining to the secret annexation discussions of Bay Point followed by Hurricane Matthew, it this: We now know better — and can do better by opposing the annexation and focusing on island redevelopment.
Kate Parks Schaefer is director of the Coastal Conservation League’s South Coast office in Beaufort.