PROVIDED/DIDevCo - Point Hope’s single-family residential offerings currently include the First Light and Hopewell neighborhoods. Schools, commercial space and multi-family residences are also in place.

Balancing growth & conservation

Point Hope development navigates environmental challenges
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Bush is a former Daniel Island resident and recently became a new resident and homeowner in Point Hope.
 
The emerging Point Hope community, set to become Charleston’s largest planned unit development, is navigating a complex landscape of legal and environmental challenges, the latest involving two endangered species.
 
Matt Sloan, president of the DI Development Company (DIDevCo), which is managing the 9,000 acre project that stretches across the Cainhoy peninsula from the Wando River to the Cooper River, said his firm recognizes that the road will be long but is committed to doing what’s right. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
LEGAL/ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES
 
A pending lawsuit filed last year by the Coastal Conservation League, Charleston Waterkeeper and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation challenges the wetlands permit issued for the project by the Army Corps of Engineers (other defendants in the suit include the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). 
 
In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (wildlife service) opened two new federal consultations regarding two endangered species with suitable habitats on the Point Hope property - the red-cockaded woodpecker (woodpecker) and the northern long-eared bat (bat). 
 
In March, the wildlife service paused all land disturbance activities on undeveloped lands within Point Hope after moving the bat from “threatened” to “endangered.”
 
Then in October, the wildlife service re-opened a consultation on the woodpecker, which has been on the endangered species list since 1970. 
 
According to its website, a consultation with the wildlife service is a collaborative effort that requires federal agencies to consult with the service “to ensure that actions they fund, authorize, permit or otherwise carry out will not jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or adversely modify designated critical habitats.” 
 
Despite the consultations and lawsuit, Sloan said the development’s overall plan has not changed. A message from the Point Hope Property Owners Association sought to reassure current residents earlier this month.
 
“Existing development already in progress is allowed to continue at Point Hope,” noted the POA message. “Homebuilders continue to prepare for future offerings on existing and developing parcels, and design and engineering work and the City review process for the pool and sports park amenity continues to move forward.”
 
Formerly known as Cainhoy Plantation, the project was approved in 2014 by the City of Charleston after a lengthy public review process. Original zoning allowed for 18,000 residential units, but DIDevCo said it plans to develop half that amount, around 9,000 units.
 
DIDevCo is managing development of the tract on behalf of the Lawson-Johnston family. Peter Lawson-Johnston inherited the property in the form of a lifetime trust upon the passing of his older cousin, Harry F. Guggenheim, in 1971 and the family has been overseeing the property ever since.  
 
THE WETLANDS ISSUE
 
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a federal wetlands permit for the property in 2022, giving developers permission to fill close to 178 acres of freshwater wetlands and 2.65 acres of tidal wetlands. 
 
“The impacts are predominantly crossings to get to and from one bit of high land across a wetland to another bit of high land,” Sloan said at a 2018 public information session on the project held at Keith School Museum. “A lot of them are on existing causeways and roadways.”
 
According to Sloan, the impacted wetlands represent about 2 percent of the total parcel’s acreage and about 4 percent of the total wetlands. 
 
The Coastal Conservation League says that is still too much.
 
“That is an unprecedented amount of wetlands fill,” stated Robby Maynor, the Coastal Conservation League’s program director of communities and transportation. “It is enormous. We comment on proposals monthly for like two acres of wetland impact, five acres of wetland impact, which are significant. This is 180.”
 
According to Maynor, the organization would like to see a more condensed footprint for the large-scale development and offered several alternative plans for the site. Developers say those plans would put too much density along the Clements Ferry corridor. 
 
While most of the entities involved have declined to comment on the lawsuit specifically, Maynor did express why they decided to take legal action. 
 
“We believe the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps, did not do their due diligence in evaluating what these impacts would be, so we have filed an appeal of that.” 
 
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege the current Point Hope development plan was “not the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” and that the Corps “violated federal law when it failed to provide an environmental impact statement.”
 
According to Maynor, the Coastal Conservation League and its partners recently submitted a request to the Army Corps of Engineers for a full environmental impact statement to be completed now. 
 
“When this was permitted, we knew a whole lot less about sea level rise,” he said. “We knew a whole lot less about how important wetlands, including freshwater wetlands, were to maintaining flood control. We didn’t know that the northern long-eared bat…even lived in that area. And they weren’t endangered...the conditions on the ground have changed.”
 
Additionally, the Coastal Conservation League’s website states nearly half of the proposed residential units would be located within a 100-year flood plain.
 
But Sloan pointed out that most of Charleston is also in a flood plain – he says he is confident DIDevCo’s stormwater management plan for the vast site gives the property even more protection than it would normally have. 
 
“New developments don’t flood,” Sloan said. “If you know you’re in a 100-year flood plain, you design with that in mind…Point Hope has the most sophisticated stormwater management plan that technology allows. It’s a massive computer model that is updated constantly…Point Hope is not going to be part of the flooding conversation in the Charleston area.”
 
The development team has long touted the “conservation-minded plan” in place for Point Hope, including keeping half of the 9,000-acre parcel undeveloped as permanently protected wetlands, buffers and natural areas. 
 
According to DIDevCo, of the 4500 acres slated for development, approximately 1000 acres are planned to become public parks, trails and open space. Additionally, 650 acres have been set aside as a protected nature sanctuary – the largest conservation easement ever to be located in the city of Charleston. 
 
“Half of the property is going to remain as protected open space,” said Sloan. “And then there will be pockets of suburbanism. As opposed to Daniel Island, (which) was all farm and no wetlands, so the neighborhoods kind of bleed into one another – one of the nice things about Point Hope is there are pockets of development lined by pockets of preserved open space…it’s a conservation-themed community.”
 
NORTHERN LONG-EARED BATS
 
While Sloan says the northern long-eared bats have not yet been detected on the property, S.C. Department of Natural Resources says they have been spotted in the adjacent Francis Marion National Forest, according to its website. The wildlife service has deemed the Point Hope area as potential suitable habitat. The bats are
facing extinction due to the impacts of white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease affecting hibernating bats across North America. 
 
“The species is in a really, really dire position,” Maynor said.
 
Developers say they are committed to doing whatever is required by the wildlife service. 
 
For now, the stop work order on timbering in Point Hope’s undeveloped areas remains in place. 
 
“They haven’t issued a playbook yet on the northern long-eared bat,” said Sloan. “The choice we were given was to spend the next couple of years surveying to see if you have them, or just assume they are there…we’ll just assume they are there and then they’ll tell us what we need to do…and we’ll live by that and do what’s right for the species.” 
 
RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER
 
Endangered for more than 50 years, the red-cockaded woodpecker has long been in residence in the nearby Francis Marion National Forest, as well as on the northern side of the Point Hope property. The birds, who like to make their habitats in the trunks of longleaf pines, are now considered to be in recovery as a species.  
 
In 1999, Cainhoy Plantation (now Point Hope) enrolled in the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers Safe Harbor Program, an initiative developed under the federal Endangered Species Act to benefit the conservation of the woodpeckers through voluntary habitat improvements by private landowners.
At the time, 11 “baseline” groups were documented on the property. 
 
For the last 10 years, the owners and developers hired and worked with a team of wildlife biologists at Sabine & Waters Inc. to study the woodpeckers and come up with ways to minimize and mitigate any potential negative impacts. 
 
Their efforts have included an off-site translocation program, which successfully moved woodpeckers from the Francis Marion to three other protected properties to re-establish woodpecker populations. Two are located in the Ace Basin (Ashepoo Plantation and Cheeha Combahee Plantation) and one in Aiken County. According to
Ryan Wenzel of Sabine & Waters, the work was unprecedented.
 
“It’s typically done with 10 birds, or five pairs,” said Wenzel, a certified wildlife biologist and South Carolina registered forester. “We actually did 10 pairs – so we did 20 birds. And what we saw was a higher retention rate.”
 
And more importantly, noted Wenzel, it marked the first time the woodpeckers have taken up residence in the Ace Basin in potentially 100 years. 
 
“It essentially started a new population down in an area that’s protected,” said Wenzel. “…They have their own viable population down there now. I think it’s a very positive benefit for the species for recovery.”
 
They also had success with survival rates. According to Wenzel, the three new populations had survival rates of 70 percent, 60 percent and 70 percent, respectively. The average survival rate is 50 percent. 
 
The Coastal Conservation League recognized Point Hope’s woodpecker mitigation actions as “a good effort” thus far, but they see room for improvement. 
 
“I think it’s positive,” said Maynor. “(But) a 70 percent success rate means that we have a 30 percent loss of a species that is in dire condition…But I think the other thing that is sort of within there is what are the direct impacts to the woodpeckers in terms of the actual cavity trees that they are removing – and those that aren’t going
to be removed that would be surrounded [by thousands of] residential units? And what impact is that going to have on the adjacent population in the Francis Marion?”
 
According to Wenzel, the Lawson-Johnston family has worked for decades to properly manage the property, through maintaining timber and conducting regular controlled burns of the forest floor to keep wildlife habitats healthy. As a result, he said, the woodpecker population on the Cainhoy property has almost doubled over the past two decades.
 
As part of the federal permit issued, the development project is allowed to “incidentally take” a certain number of woodpeckers during development of the property. 
 
 “The Endangered Species Act prohibits killing or harming of endangered animals,” explained Gary Peeples, a wildlife service deputy field office supervisor based in the Asheville Field Office, Southeast Region. “But there are situations where that is okay, if it is incidental to an otherwise legal activity and it does not jeopardize the
existence of the species.”
 
Wenzel stressed no one on the team is “killing birds” intentionally. As part of its on-site mitigation plan, the goal is to retain the birds for as long as possible and continue to manage for them.
 
“Standard minimization is capturing them and relocating them to another property and getting them out of harm’s way before any kind of timbering activities or development happens,” Wenzel added.
 
FINDING BALANCE
 
As of today, over 1,000 people already call Point Hope home. 
 
“Demand has outpaced supply since opening day,” Sloan said of the development. “What we’re focused on now is developing on sites that are not wetland properties, as we navigate the permitting issue.”
 
When asked if federal consultations regarding endangered species, which can take up to 135 days to be completed, could ever lead to a project being completely shut down, Peeples said it wasn’t likely.
 
“The only time a project would not be done at all is…if it would jeopardize the existence of a species. I have worked in the southeast for the Fish & Wildlife Service for 22 years. I have never seen a project reach that level. In almost every situation, if you’re even getting close to that, there are ample things that can be done, (and)
modifications to the project that can be made.”
 
Whether or not there will be any changes to the Point Hope development plan has yet to be determined. But for now, there is hope that a balance can be found among all parties involved. 
 
“It’s finding that middle ground, that high ground, furthest away from important habitat areas, that’s what we’d like to see,” Maynor said. “There is a way to strike a balance here, which is all we’re trying to do, that promotes sustainable and reasonable development along Clements Ferry, and conserving the most significant and really
sensitive areas.”
 
Sloan is confident that there is a way to come together to create an eco-friendly community that celebrates the natural environment, while addressing the critical need for housing.   
 
“This is all going to happen,” he said. “It’s the future of the city. There’s no place for growth to happen but here.”
 

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