State leaders, residents oppose zoning changes on St. Helena Island

Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 4:28 PM EST
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St. Helena, Sc. (WTOC) - Land controversy in the Lowcountry.

South Carolina state leaders are now taking sides in a zoning conflict in Beaufort County over restricting development on Saint Helena.

Now, tensions in the area are bubbling as the county and local residents disagree, whether or not a new golf community should be allowed to be built.

“We have two petitions with over 10,000 signatures.”

10,844 signatures to be exact... all saying the 498 acres of land known as Pine Island on Saint Helena should remain untouched. It’s historically native land, with a protection put in place back in 1999 to restrict potential development.

“That overlay was purposefully and specifically made by the community, for the community, to protect Gullah Geechee land and culture,” said Jessie White, South Coast Office Director of the Coastal Conservation League.

Jessie White works at the Coastal Conservation League, educating and empowering communities like the Gullah.

“You see Pine Island right here.”

She says the land is in danger with potential gentrification on the horizon. Specifically saying a developer is looking to put in a nine hole golf course and gated community.

“The result of that is the property taxes and the property values skyrocket and it pushes people off their land.”

The zoning laws keeping that from happening are long and complex, but would need a tweak before any of it becomes possible and that’s where Beaufort County comes in.

County public information officer Chris Ophardt says they put forward a potential change in the Cultural Protection Overlay that would allow for more development than it does currently.

“Within the cultural protection overlay is very specific rules for development, you cannot have anything more than an 8 hole golf course,” said Ophardt.

He says it also doesn’t allow for gated communities, the switch in wording would change that.

The initial proposal, however, got the attention of both Governor McMaster and Congresswoman Nancy Mace who both said it would signal “open season” to developers and create a “domino effect” on Saint Helena and beyond, supporting White’s mission and the native islanders.

WTOC asked the county about the statements from those leaders.

“We support the principles of both the Governor and our Representative, and we believe that we will uphold those principles.”

He says Beaufort County wants the best for everyone involved, as they see the land development as an opportunity to share native culture, not take it away.

“The county’s intent is to work with the Gullah people to strengthen their community, strengthen their economy and protect their heritage.”

The text amendment to the overlay was initially denied by a committee after those state leaders stood against it, but will now go back to a citizen group for changes and compromises before making it’s way to county council in April.