Three years ago, Six Senses Hotels and Resorts identified Bay Point Island — a small, untouched, spit of shifting sand near St. Helena Island — as the target for its first North American luxury resort. Hilton Head Island initially expressed interest in the plan, but in the wake of two hurricanes, the town lost its appetite for providing services to a resort across the Port Royal Sound. We all breathed a sigh of relief. For the time being, this precious habitat was safe.
Unfortunately, like viruses, bad ideas can mutate quickly and return to life, searching for new hosts. The developers are now looking to Beaufort County to approve a “fun and quirky” luxury resort. To sell their idea, they are claiming they are creating an “eco-tourism” destination — touting their green bona fides, including plans to be plastic-free by 2022, serve local food and use solar power. But these earth-friendly policies distract from a central problem: There is no such thing as an environmentally sustainable resort on one of South Carolina’s last undeveloped barrier islands.
Six Senses, based in Thailand, may not be familiar with our significant tidal swings or how severely our beaches have eroded over the past several years, but we are. Plopping a resort onto this vulnerable and dynamic island in an era where we have been hit, grazed, or threatened by a hurricane every year since 2016 is the definition of insanity.
For decades, we have desperately tried to keep our beaches from slipping into the sea. Since 1990, Hilton Head has spent over $60 million on beach nourishment, pumping 10.7 million cubic yards of sand onto its beaches. The state experimented with Wave Dissipation Systems on Harbor Island, which failed to save the beach and interfered with sea turtle nesting.
These efforts have made one point painfully clear: We need to stop building on precarious landscapes.
Building in areas that we know are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change is irresponsible and short sighted. Modeling shows the marsh behind Bay Point will disappear if the ocean rises one foot. With two feet, the majority of nearby land disappears, leaving a narrow strip of inaccessible sand.
The question is not if a resort on Bay Point Island would succumb to sea level rise or be destroyed by a hurricane. The question is when. It would be hard to put it more succinctly than Dr. Rob Young, geologist at Western Carolina University: “If you ask me what the first step is in responding to flooding in the future, it is to first do no more harm. Don’t put any more stuff in the wrong places.”
There are other problems with developing Bay Point. Humans bring with them human needs for food, water, power, waste and emergency services, all of which require infrastructure that doesn’t exist on the island, a pricey investment that could leave tax payers on the hook for financing. Perhaps most concerning is the inability of EMS to reach the island. Under the best-case scenario, it takes EMS over an hour to respond to an emergency on Bay Point — assuming the tides and weather are cooperating fully. Developing the island is complicated, expensive and simply dangerous.
And aside from the problems associated with developing the island, it is also vital to acknowledge how valuable the island is as it is. Audubon recognizes Bay Point as an Important Bird Area. Dunlins, sandpipers, red knots, sanderlings, willets and ruddy turnstones all frequent the island, and during the winter months, Bay Point can hold as many as 8,000 shorebirds. In addition, 107 loggerhead sea turtle nests were recorded on Bay Point this year. On a mostly developed coastline, Bay Point stands out as a refuge for some of our most charismatic wildlife.
Sacrificing this sanctuary to an international resort with no connection or knowledge of South Carolina beaches would be a tragedy.
Six Senses can call this development “eco-tourism” until the cows come home, but it is just a resort providing guests with high-end services. Beaufort County is home to some real eco-tourism businesses that fit neatly within rural communities. Spending the day making your holiday wreath at Wimbee Creek Farm, visiting Frank Roberts’ oyster farm, or exploring St. Phillips Island, all make the eco-tourism cut. Despite ample lipstick application, the proposal for Bay Point is still a pig.
On Oct. 15 at 6 p.m., Beaufort County Councilman York Glover is hosting a public meeting at the St. Helena Branch Library where the developer will present the plan for the resort on Bay Point Island. We hope you’ll join the Conservation League, South Carolina Environmental Law Project, and Hilton Head Audubon at this meeting to oppose this ill-conceived development.
Rikki Parker is South Coast office director and legal analyst for the Coastal Conservation League; Jessie White is an attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project; and John Bloomfield is vice president of Hilton Head Audubon.