Beaufort County finds itself refereeing a sparring match between a private development company, environmentalists and its own zoning code.
At stake is whether development plans presented by a company comply with the county's existing development and zoning code regarding Bay Point Island, located south of St. Helena Island and northeast of Hilton Head Island, just across Port Royal Sound.
The company - Luckett & Farley Development, a Kentucky-based architectural and engineering firm - and the county staff review team, headed by community development director Eric Greenway, met in council chambers on Jan. 15 to discuss the issue.
A few dozen people attended the public meeting, and no public comment was allowed.
The county wanted more details and specifics about the company's plans to develop an eco-tourism destination on 50 acres of the barrier island's pristine 347 acres, building no more than 50 one- and two-story villas or cottages with no more than eight units in each structure.
The verbal exchange was testy at times, but not combative.
The county said it wasn't given pertinent detailed information on the application form for development late last year. The company contends it wasn't asked to and asked the county if what it provided was sufficient.
"Before we submitted our form to the county, that certainly would have been the time to raise your hand before a formal commission, and say, 'Hey, I have questions about this being eco-tourism and I need more information in this category'," said Tim Pitcher, president of the company and part owner of the island. His business partner has owned the island for 20 years.
"I was very clear about the process you have to go through to prove it was to be eco-tourism," Greenway said. "I even said at the meeting you had to provide me with a thorough narrative of how you're complying."
The county rejected the development proposal in a letter on Dec. 10.
The company contends that its proposed facility as an eco-tourism destination may be allowable under the island's current zoning. The county contends that the "use in question is not eco-tourism use."
"We are discussing a concept the developer has proposed for a piece of property in our county," Greenway said. "Even though it's an island ... our job is to make sure that the concept adheres to our code.
"They need to promote sustainability and environmental education," he said. "We, and I, have made a determination that they have not those requirements."
"We've met every criteria of the county's definition," Pitcher said. "We are going nowhere; we are going to exert our rights to protect the island."
"You've met one aspect of the county's definition. And I'll read...," Greenway said.
There was no resolve at the meeting two weeks ago. The company has filed an application to present its argument before the county Zoning Board of Appeals on Feb. 27.
Greenway said in a follow-up phone call that the board will determine if his ruling is determined to be flawed or in error of code specifics regarding the island's usage as presented. Clearly, he believes it is not, he said. The meeting didn't move the needle at all to convince him that the decision to deny the application wasn't correct.
The staff review team will not meet with the developers again, he said.
"I'm concerned that, and I pointed it out in a couple of ways, because of personal opinion, that some of the standard procedures, including the code itself, have not been adhered to," Pitcher said after the meeting.
"I guess what I'm looking for is a plan," Greenway said in the meeting. "We need to know, in firm detail, what you're going to do on the island to comply with the eco-tourism definition ... which is organized educational and mainly outdoor recreation ... that promotes ecological education, preservation and sustainability. I don't have that. I need that. No one has given me that yet."
"At no time did you mention, you may have had concerns, but there was never any verbal or documented, where someone said, 'Hey, this thing is not eco-tourism'." Pitcher said. "We've complied all along that eco-tourism is the use."
He said the island's amenities would be used for education of the environment, soil, water and sewer use, conservation, everything related to ecology and environment, turtle preservation, bird habitat, the Lowcountry ecology and culture.
Topics broached were the definitions of hotel vs. resort, public safety and medical emergencies, infrastructure, water and sewer systems, disaster preparedness, impact fees, setbacks, etc.
"What's most important to me is to communicate to people what we're really doing here and for the county to live up to its own rules with regards to what the uses can be," Pitcher said to this reporter. "What's important to me is protecting the island."
Environmentalists, like the Coastal Conversation League and the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, have staunchly opposed development plans on this untouched barrier island over the past few years. They cite the island's fragile ecosystem, vitality as a wildlife sanctuary for nesting loggerhead sea turtles and thousands of shorebirds, as a longstanding fishing area for the nearby Gullah community, and the sensitive erosional shoreline.
Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.