Judge grants voice to people of St. Helena Island in ongoing development dispute

A developer has been trying to build a golf course and gated community on Pine Island on the South Carolina coast.
Published: Sep. 7, 2023 at 5:20 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2023 at 9:06 PM EDT
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BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The Gullah Geechee people of barrier islands in Beaufort County have been fighting against a proposed development since 2022, and so far they are winning in the board votes and their legal battle.

A developer has been trying to build a golf course and gated community on Pine Island on the South Carolina coast. But the island is a Gullah Geechee hub, and therefore has special protection.

Pine Island is an approximately 500-acre property located on the much larger St. Helena Island. Pine Island’s property was recently purchased by a developer with the goal to build a private golf course.  The owner is the Pine Island Property Holdings LLC.

The Cultural Protection Overlay zone is a specific zoning for Pine Island and St. Helena Island that bans any development of private clubs or golf courses. That rule is in place to protect the Gullah Geechee people. The Gullah Geechee nation is a specific culture developed by the descendants of slaves on the Atlantic coast.

In the past year, the developer has been denied multiple times - by the zoning board and by the county council. During one council meeting, people packed the room and many stood in the hall and outside holding signs advocating for their land and protesting the development.

However, the developer is still trying to access the land through a lawsuit against the cultural protections that are stopping their building. On Sept. 1, a judge granted the Gullah Geechee nation, landowners, and coastal advocates a say in the lawsuit, giving them a voice and strength in the situation.

Jessie White is the South Coast Office Director and the Coastal Conservation League. The Coastal Conservation League along with the Penn Institute and South Carolina Environmental Law Firm have stepped in to help advocate for the people of the islands.

“The Gullah Geechee community on St. Helena has long been very engaged and very active and empowered and have fought off threats to their culture and their way of life for several decades, and this is no different,” White says.

The Coastal Conservation League and the landowners they are working with are confident that the special zoning protects the island and that the law is on their side going forward.

“The legal validity of the cultural protection overlay is very clearly written. There’s no ambiguity in it and there never has been,” White says.

White says so far, the local representatives in Beaufort County are doing a good job of listening to the people and creating support for the community’s wishes. The Cultural Protection Overlay has been in place since the 1990s and it has been strictly enforced. In this case, on June 12th a land committee voted 6-1 to deny the developer’s rezoning request. On June 26th, the Beaufort County Council voted 8-2 striking down a special exception for the developer. Each of these maintained the integrity of the CPO zone, and advocates say they believe that trend will continue through the lawsuit attempt to escape the Cultural Protection Overlay.

“The community voice matters, and it you know when the community has spoken it’s important and incumbent upon decision makers and potential developers alike to listen and we have zoning rules for a reason. There is a very highly specific community-driven zoning overlay on St Helena for a reason and that’s because it’s the largest concentration of living Gullah Geechee culture in Beaufort Community,” White says.