Protecting St. Helena

St. Helena is home to Beaufort County’s largest concentration of Gullah/Geechee people and landowners. The Cultural Protection Overlay protects this community from gentrification by restricting gated communities, resorts, and golf courses. On many Sea Islands including Hilton Head Island, these developments have harmed Gullah/Geechee land ownership, and Gullah/Geechee culture.

The National Park Service highlights how golf resort communities can impact Gullah/Geechee culture in the Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement, which led to the federal designation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

In November 2021, Beaufort County adopted the Envision Beaufort County 2040 Comprehensive Plan. The plan identifies threats to the Gullah/Geechee community and the rural way of life on St. Helena including rapid coastal development, and high-end developments on the water that block access to traditional fishing and hunting grounds and increase property taxes. The plan makes clear the dangers of incompatible development on St. Helena.

The primary threat to the long-term viability of Beaufort County’s
Gullah/Geechee communities is land development.

Envision Beaufort County 2040 Comprehensive Plan

Text Amendments

Under current law, golf courses, resorts, and gated communities are prohibited within the CPO zoning district on St. Helena Island. A Beaufort County staff initiated text amendment (provided below) was presented to the Beaufort County Planning Commission on January 5th, 2023. If approved, the amendment would have created exceptions, cut out the public, and allowed for behind the scenes negotiations. It could have exposed more than 5,613 acres of land to gentrification.

Text Amendments to CPO presented to the Planning Commission on January 5th, 2023

The staff’s proposed changes make it close to impossible to uphold the goals of the CPO and to maintain the traditional rural lifestyle of the island. The amendment would rip out the heart and soul of the CPO.

However, the St. Helena community voiced their opposition to these destructive changes to the CPO and the proposed Pine Island golf resort loudly and clearly.

The Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition as well as the Historic Penn Center gained thousands of signatures on their respective petitions. Governor Henry McMaster also shared his concerns along with local Senator Chip Campsen and Congresswoman Nancy Mace.

Clarifying & Strengthening the CPO 

The staff initiated text amendment to the Cultural Protection Overlay was brought before the Planning Commission at their January 5, 2023 meeting where they recommended denial of the proposed amendment.

At the January 9, 2023 meeting of the Community Services and Land Use Committee, the Committee recommended the following regarding the proposed amendment: “Postpone this matter until April 10 and refer the matter to the Cultural Protection Overlay District Committee to study the existing ordinance with the County’s legal department and with other outside entities of the Committee’s choosing to suggest revisions that can be added to reinforce the Overlay’s purpose and to improve the protection it provides to St. Helena and the surrounding islands.” 

The CPO Committee, chaired by Queen Quet, met 4 times (January 17, January 31, February 21, and March 21). The committee’s recommendations (provided below), help strengthen the CPO and clarify its purpose and intent. The updates to the CPO were officially adopted by County Council on May 8, 2023.

The CPO is legally defensible because it is specifically authorized by statute; was enacted in accordance with state law; sets forth a clear purpose; explains the basis for its limitations; is limited to a defined geographic area; and does not restrict all uses of properties within the District. The proposed amendments stemming from the CPO Committee simply further the goals and purposes of the existing CPO. 

Groups supportive of a strong CPO include:

  • Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
  • Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition
  • Historic Penn Center
  • Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce
  • Coastal Conservation League
  • Beaufort County Open Land Trust
  • South Carolina Environmental Law Project
  • Coastal Expeditions Beaufort
  • Friends of Hunting Island
  • Historic Beaufort Foundation
  • Sea Island Corridor Coalition
  • Preservation South Carolina
  • Savannah Archaeological Alliance
  • Atlanta Preservation Center
  • Hilton Head Island Audubon Society
  • South Carolina Wildlife Federation
  • Beaufort Soil & Water Conservation District
  • South Carolina Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
  • Dulamo Homeowners Association

Original Photos by Miles Sanders