The Beaufort County Council voted 9-2 Monday to strengthen an existing cultural protection overlay on St. Helena Island, providing stronger zoning protection against golf courses and gated communities that dominate communities south of the Broad River.
The most vocal supporter of the CPO changes on the council — York Glover, who represents St. Helena — also was asked to explain a meeting he attended with the developers more than a year ago.
The vote, which is final, came after two previous preliminary OKs and prompted applause from an overflow crowd of island residents who once again crammed into the County Council chambers to support the changes wearing green stickers that said “protect St. Helena” and “no golf resorts.”
The debate over the CPO has highlighted the importance the northern Beaufort County community places on keeping the island largely rural and preserving Gullah Geechee culture that remains intact hundreds of years after West and Central Africans were enslaved and brought to the lower Atlantic states to work on plantations.
The previous ordinance also banned golf courses and gated communities but doubts about enforcing its provisions were raised after developer Elvio Tropeano proposed an 18-hole golf course and 65 homes on some 450 acres he recently purchased for $18 million.
Tropeano’s project has run into a buzz saw of opposition from St. Helena Island residents, along with conservation and Gullah Geechee leaders, and prompted a move to strengthen the ordinance, which now includes language to close potential loopholes. It now better defines a golf course as any kind of course where golf is played no matter how many holes. Initially, Tropeano sought an exception to the CPO and later proposed three 6-hole golf courses instead of an 18-hole course.
“The community has spoken,” said Glover, who moved that the council support the CPO changes. “It’s very clear.”
Historically, Glover said, St. Helena has opposed changes that will bring more people to the island. He cited construction of a bridge in the 1920s and more recent proposals to widen Sea Island Parkway.
“The community has come out again and said the same thing,” Glover said, ‘We don’t want the changes because it will change St. Helena.’”
Logan Cunningham and Paula Brown, who voted against the CPO changes, both had questions for Glover.
Before the vote, Brown produced a packet of information she said she received last week that had details of a meeting that was attended by the developers, area ministers and Glover on April 23, 2022. She asked Glover what transpired at that meeting.
Glover said he agreed to introduce Tropeano to local leaders so they could hear about his concept, “but there was never an endorsement of this project.”
Glover added he was intrigued about the project when he heard that there was an archaeological study being conducted on the site.
Cunningham noted that Glover recently said recently that he supported construction of second bridge to St. Helena because of traffic.
Over time, Glover replied, St. Helena residents have become better prepared for change.
Tropeano’s project is proposed in a historic area known as St. Helenaville that’s connected via a causeway to the 77-acre Pine Island.
Monday’s vote to improve the CPO doesn’t mean the property will not be developed. Residential housing still is allowed. Tropeano has already had preliminary discussions with county planners about building a larger residential housing development of up to 166 homes.
“It cannot be stopped — whether it’s him or he sells it off to another developer,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham and Councilman Tom Reitz encouraged Tropeano and St. Helena Island leaders Arnold Brown of Penn Center and Marquetta L. Goodwine, or Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, to meet to try and resolve their differences.
What Tropeano is proposing in his original plan, Reitz said, may in fact benefit the island. Reitz also gave credit to Tropeano for continuing despite major opposition.
“Regardless of how this goes tonight, hang in there. Stay the course,” Reitz said. “I like the way you think.”
But Faith Rivers James, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said the clarification of CPO language is key to enforcing the original intent of residents who pushed for it more than two decades ago to protect the island’s farming, fishing and culture.
“It’s important their vision be upheld,” James said.
And Goodwine, who grew up on St. Helena Island, said the CPO is nationally recognized for its protection of a culture from planned unit developments, resorts and golf courses in addition to the land and water. She urged council members to support the move to strengthen it. At one point, Goodwine began singing the hymn, “Heaven belongs to you (If you live right),” with audience members following her lead.
The changes in the CPO will not affect current gated communities such as Dataw Island, which has a golf course.
Tropeano noted most of the signs and stickers in the room were in opposition to his specific project, when the CPO ordinance was the issue at hand. His name, he said, had been referenced 76 times in two previous meetings. The association of golf with culture loss has made the project difficult to explain, he acknowledged.
“I get it,” he said. But the “purpose built community,” Tropeano said, could, in fact, be an engine that powers revitalization working in concert with existing organizations such as Penn Center.
He previously has described his original project as a conservation development that would protect the environment and the cultural heritage of St. Helena Island while providing public access and other benefits.