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PORT ROYAL — The newly sworn-in mayor of Port Royal wasted no time getting down to business during the Dec. 13 Town Council meeting.The smiles, handshakes and words of encouragement that marked Kevin Phillips’ brief inauguration ceremony were immediately followed by a motion to move the Town Council into executive session.The session’s purpose, as indicated in the meeting age...
PORT ROYAL — The newly sworn-in mayor of Port Royal wasted no time getting down to business during the Dec. 13 Town Council meeting.
The smiles, handshakes and words of encouragement that marked Kevin Phillips’ brief inauguration ceremony were immediately followed by a motion to move the Town Council into executive session.
The session’s purpose, as indicated in the meeting agenda, was to receive legal advice regarding the controversial Safe Harbor development underway in the town that sits wedged between Battery Creek and the Beaufort River.
Less than 30 minutes later, Council emerged from the behind-closed-doors session and newly re-elected Councilman Jerry Ashmore offered a motion.
“I would like to make a motion to direct Mayor Phillips to submit a letter to Safe Harbor advising of our council’s concerns and feedback to items related to the Port of Port Royal development,” Ashmore said.
The motion passed unanimously.
The contents of that letter have not yet been made public. The Post and Courier has requested a copy of the letter under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act and is awaiting the town’s response.
Phillips defeated incumbent Joe DeVito in the Nov. 7, 2023, election for the town’s top elected spot. DeVito had served one term as mayor. The margin of Phillips’ victory — he garnered 60 percent of the 1,041 votes cast compared to DeVito’s 39 percent of the vote — surprised even Phillips.
“I was shocked by that. I thought it would be a lot closer than that,” Phillips recounted.
If there was one issue that distinguished Phillips from DeVito, it was Safe Harbor. And, as Safe Harbor’s development plans became public in the late summer and early fall, it was almost certainly a deciding factor in the election.
“That was something that was different between me and Joe,” Phillips said.
The Port of Port Royal has for years been a point of unrealized potential. Phillips said that residents have long been frustrated by plans that announced and never come to fruition. The South Carolina Ports Authority sold the port to a private developer in 2017, Grey Ghost Properties LLC.
They made some good progress, according to Phillips, including getting two restaurants opened: Shellring Ale Works and Fishcamp on 11th Street. But in 2021, they sold to Safe Harbor Marinas, a national chain with facilities across the U.S. with a heavy East Coast concentration.
In August, Safe Harbor presented their development plan, and nearly everyone was caught off guard. It was, according to Phillips, the first time the public and the council had heard anything about plans for Safe Harbor. Communication with the company was, he said, lacking.
“It was just completely different from anything that anyone had conceptualized. They just came out of left field,” Phillips said, adding that all hell broke loose after the plans came to light.
Safe Harbor’s plan, as described by Phillips, calls for a boatyard “larger than anyone ever thought” and the construction of approximately 230 build-to-rent housing units. The new homes could add as many as 400 cars to downtown.
“It’s gorgeous out there, and we’re just going to build 230 build-to-rent townhomes in the middle of that? Nobody saw that coming,” Phillips said. “If Port Royal knew that was the plan originally, I don’t think there’s anybody on Council that would’ve made that deal.”
Phillips characterized his response to the plan as more confrontational than DeVito’s. Phillips made it clear, he said, that he was prepared to take on Safe Harbor, while DeVito’s approach was perceived as more cooperative.
“When you’re dealing with something this special, this important, you’ve got to stand up for it and you’ve got to fight for it,” Phillips said. “That’s what I plan to do, and I think Council is behind it, too.”
The willingness to take on Safe Harbor appears to have resonated with voters. The issue is almost certain to be a defining issue during his term as mayor.
DeVito was presented a key to the town and a plaque honoring his term as mayor that included a gavel. He noted the irony in the gift because during his entire term, he never used a gavel.
“I do not believe you need a gavel to run a meeting,” DeVito said. “We ran the meetings together as a team and we did it because we all love Port Royal. We did it for one reason and one reason only, the betterment of Port Royal.”
HILTON HEAD ISLAND — With a deadline on the horizon, the county has announced a new temporary embarkment site for the Daufuskie Island ferry.
Ferry service to the island is now planned to set sail from the C.C. Haigh Jr. Public Boat Landing on Pinckney Island, situated between Bluffton and Hilton Head Island and home to the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. The county aims to update the landing to accommodate the higher flow of traffic and parking needs while meeting a court-mandated deadline to relocate the Daufuskie ferry’s embarkation site by Jan. 1.
Temporary use of the landing will require upgrades that are estimated to cost $495,000, which includes some updates that were planned independently of the relocation, said Hannah Nichols, a spokesperson with Beaufort County.
At this point, it’s not clear how long the county will need to make use of the Pinckney Island landing.
An exact date for when the new embarkation site will begin operations is still unknown, but Nichols said the site will be operational before January.
The county will still look to create a permanent embarkment site at Cross Island Landing on Hilton Head Island. Needed updates and infrastructure for that location have been delayed due in part to condemnation proceedings, which is the process the county has undergone to acquire the land.
The C.C. Haigh Jr. Boat Landing was considered by county officials as a permanent site, but the idea was nixed because the county operates the land on a lease from the federal government. Federal zoning and land-use restrictions prevent the building of permanent structures on the property, such as bathrooms, Nichols said.
Another detail in the Daufuskie ferry shuffle came together Dec. 11 when County Council passed a resolution that will allow the interim county administrator to begin negotiations with new ferry service provider Lowcountry Ferry LLC, at $365,000 per fiscal year.
Before the approval, County Council member Mark Lawson said “there will be growing pains” as the county adjusts to the move.
Standing on four beefy legs made of hefty shrimp boat anchor chain, a 7 1/2-foot-long and 2 1/2-foot-wide alligator sculpture weighing 125 pounds and made mostly of metal now greets visitors to Port Royal’s Cypress Wetlands.With its large tail that’s slightly curved, the toothy and bumpy backed replica is poised near the entrance to the swamp where real alligators live, literally greeting visitors with a steely stare and a grin revealing a mouthful of teeth fashioned from bicycle chain.But the new greeter is not art...
Standing on four beefy legs made of hefty shrimp boat anchor chain, a 7 1/2-foot-long and 2 1/2-foot-wide alligator sculpture weighing 125 pounds and made mostly of metal now greets visitors to Port Royal’s Cypress Wetlands.
With its large tail that’s slightly curved, the toothy and bumpy backed replica is poised near the entrance to the swamp where real alligators live, literally greeting visitors with a steely stare and a grin revealing a mouthful of teeth fashioned from bicycle chain.
But the new greeter is not art for art’s sake alone.
It’s a statement, too: Don’t be a slob and toss litter into the waters of the world-class wetlands and rookery.
To drive home the point of the harm that garbage can have on wildlife, the innards of the alligator sculpture are stuffed with metal cans and plastic bottles.
“Litter endangers our alligators, turtles, birds and our entire ecosystem,” a sign near the garbage gator reads.
Metal artist Cathy Pender Emmert created this unique sculpture.
“It’s definitely a piece of art,” Pender Emmert said moments before the town’s latest piece of artwork, hidden under a green tarp, was unveiled before a curious crowd that gathered at the amphitheater on Thursday. “I really like it. It surpassed my expectations of what I thought I would create.”
The metal artist spared no details trying to get the gator just right, studying information about the specifics of the apex predator’s toes and eyes. Sharing a fun fact she learned in her investigation, the length in inches between an alligator’s nostrils and eyes is approximately the same as the animal’s total length in feet.
She made the sculpture using mostly metal chains of various sizes and some rebar.
The eyes are made of steel orbs with a slash of copper to mimic the slits. The rebar was chosen because it’s rough, like an alligator’s texture, while the chains recreate its bumpy and bony exterior.
Friends of Cypress Wetlands asked Pender Emmert to create the public art.
The not-for-profit group advocates on behalf of the wetlands, which attracts thousands of great egrets, snowy egrets, tri-color herons, little blue herons, black-crowned night herons, green herons and white ibises that roost and nest in the trees.
Scot Clark, the president of the board, says Cypress Wetlands draws some 210,000 visitors a year, which is “pretty amazing.”
But Kat Bray, a Friends board member, also noted that she and others have been pulling trash out of the swamp for years.
She recommended a public service-type of public art after she saw a large dolphin sculpture filled with litter while visiting St. Simons Island.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Bray said.
A welder by trade, Pender Emmert manages the welding department at Pender Brothers Inc. in Port Royal. About 6 years ago, she started creating art from metal. The beer tap handles at Shellring Ale Works are just one of her projects.
After hours, Pender Emmert and her father enjoy father-daughter time doing “blacksmithing” projects.
“I tell everybody, ‘He didn’t have a boy, so I had to man up,’” she says with a laugh.
The alligator sculpture project contained a lot of firsts for her: It is the first animal she has created and her first three-dimensional project. It is also the largest.
At the close of the unveiling of the sculpture, somebody asked about the name of the alligator. Clark says that’s still to be determined, but Pender Emmert’s father has an idea.
“I’ve been referring to it as ‘him,’” she said of alligator sculpture, ”but my dad says it should be Ally the Gator.”
This story was originally published November 3, 2023, 12:30 PM.
The town of Port Royal may be viewed as a small waterfront hamlet to some but the issues facing the 14,000 residents mirror similar challenges vexing much bigger east coast cities. Development, preservation and environmental concerns clearly have become the breakout issues of this election.Monday night at the town’s elementary school in front of more than 100 residents, Mayor Joe DeVito and challenger Kevin Phillips presented their approaches to handing these topics including water and land use along Battery Creek, which has bec...
The town of Port Royal may be viewed as a small waterfront hamlet to some but the issues facing the 14,000 residents mirror similar challenges vexing much bigger east coast cities. Development, preservation and environmental concerns clearly have become the breakout issues of this election.
Monday night at the town’s elementary school in front of more than 100 residents, Mayor Joe DeVito and challenger Kevin Phillips presented their approaches to handing these topics including water and land use along Battery Creek, which has become a lightning rod of local controversy since progress and planning for the Safe Harbor Marinas project has slid behind a veil of secrecy in recent months.
The moderated discussion lasted an hour and the two candidates for the town’s highest office responded to questions from a panel chosen by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, which organized the forum.
The candidates painted two very different pictures of the way forward. Topics included affordable housing, the future of military installations and improvements to Ribaut Road. All of those issues paled to the 800-pound gorilla in the room: looming and immediate questions regarding the waterfront development plans and how the town should manage this process in the next few months.
DeVito is running for a second four-year mayoral term. Phillips was elected to the council four years ago. DeVito touted his experience including 18 years on the Planning Commission, saying he offered “true leadership” and had moved the needle over the past four years when it comes to progress. Phillips touted a new vision and procedures and policies for the town and “a better way.”
Challenger Phillips suggested a “pause” should be placed on new large-scale residential and commercial development. He cites that the town already has enough apartment complexes and storage units. A development moratorium, he said, would allow the community that prides itself on its proximity to the local waters to study its codes as well as affordable housing and areas that should be considered for preservation. Residents, Phillips said, “have a say in this community and (they) should be heard about that.”
DeVito said he’s willing to discuss how a moratorium would impact the community but he called the idea a “slippery slope” that he likely would vote against. Stopping development would affect every resident in town, he noted. And it would not just affect tax revenue upon which the town relies but also people with jobs with the companies involved in development and building. People willing to invest in the town, he added, may walk away and never return. Also, if you pick what can and can’t be built in town without providing a good reason, it opens up the town to lawsuits, DeVito said.
“We have to have a real reason for a moratorium,” DeVito said.
Phillips countered that he just wanted to get a conversation started. He argued that residents feel as if they are not being heard when it comes to the way the town is being developed. “I personally do not believe it (the dialogue) cannot be done,” Phillips said.
The candidates were asked if the redevelopment of the port property along Battery Creek is on the right track and the pair’s answers provided another difference in approach.
Safe Harbor Marinas is developing about 50 acres of waterfront along Battery Creek with a marina and housing. Those plans have been criticized recently. Residents have raised concerns about The Beach Company’s plan to build 200 rental townhomes and single-family dwellings. The Beach Company is in negotiations with Safe Harbor to purchase land where the housing is planned. Residents have raised concerns about how industrial the waterfront currently appears, especially the presence of the large cranes Safe Harbor Marinas is using to assemble docks that will be used at other far away sites they operate.
Phillips said he doesn’t like how Safe Harbor has treated the town since it bought the property two years ago. The town has been a good partner, he said, “And you can see how we’ve been treated.” He said he worries about the Beach Company’s “build to rent” project. Each day the town waits, he said, The Beach Company is getting closer to closing on the property with Safe Harbor. Once they close on the property, he predicted, they will listen to whoever is financing the project, not the town. “The longer we wait the worse the situation gets,” Phillips said.
DeVito addressed the topic by saying nobody likes the direction of the housing plans are going and the town council members have voiced their opinions about it. The question, he said, is how the town goes about making a change to the plans. The town needs to negotiate and be ready to get tougher if necessary. This area of Port Royal should be developed with single family homes where people can walk down the street. Safe Harbor will get to know that “in a very strong way, possibly this week,” said DeVito, hinting that the town was planning something.
Ian Scott, the CEO and president of the Chamber of Commerce, calling the port redevelopment “a hot topic of conversation,” followed up, asking what concrete steps the town should be taking right now to ensure the project is successful.
Phillips said the town should put pressure on Safe Harbor’s Marina plans because that’s mainly why they are in Port Royal. If you don’t like the housing plans, he said, the town needs to push against the marina plans.
DeVito said there “are tools in the tool box we ready to deploy.” The town, he added, must keep the attorneys out of the situation “as long as possible.”
The candidates were asked what they would change about zoning or development.
Devito said the town needs more job-creating commercial development along its highway corridors, which may require zoning changes.
Phillips said more transparency is needed in the development process. Residents are frustrated and ask “what’s going on” when developments seem to pop up out of nowhere, Phillips said. Sometimes, he added, even council members are surprised by projects. Phillips said he’d like to see more public input and notice especially when it comes to larger projects.
DeVito countered that there is a chance for public comments at Design Review Board meetings which are publicly posted and open to the public.
The candidates were asked about what they would do to protect Port Royal’s location so close to the valued resource of Battery Creek. Phillips’ answer reiterated his ‘development moratorium’ theme as a good first step in identifying lands that require protection.
DeVito said addressing environmental concerns start with getting rid of the remaining septic systems in the area and getting them on the public sewer system. He also pushed for developing greater control of storm water runoff. Finally, he mentioned that overbuilding is an issue the town needs to keep on close watch.
This story was originally published October 17, 2023, 1:01 PM.
The LGBTQ+ Lowcountry Pride Group is planning to move its annual Pride festival to a public park in Port Royal, which has sparked a divide in the community as opponents attempt to block it and supporters come to its defense.It would be the first time the event, which has been held in Bluffton the past four years, would be held north of the Broad River.Angela Wright, who represents the group, said it is looking to move the event to Port Royal in November because a number of sponsors in northern Beaufort County have expressed int...
The LGBTQ+ Lowcountry Pride Group is planning to move its annual Pride festival to a public park in Port Royal, which has sparked a divide in the community as opponents attempt to block it and supporters come to its defense.
It would be the first time the event, which has been held in Bluffton the past four years, would be held north of the Broad River.
Angela Wright, who represents the group, said it is looking to move the event to Port Royal in November because a number of sponsors in northern Beaufort County have expressed interest in supporting it.
“We have a lot of people who are really excited it’s going to be in Port Royal for once,” Wright said.
Wright’s comments came in July, when she gave an update on the plans during a Town Council work session.
Since then, residents who are opposed to the event being held in the public Live Oaks Park have attended Town Council meetings to urge elected officials to block the plans. That testimony has prompted others to show up to support the Pride festival being in Port Royal.
Opponents have cited concerns about the location of the festival being near the town’s elementary school and the possibility of drag queens participating in a parade. They’ve also raised issues about the distribution of LGBTQ+ information regarding gender.
Wright initially told the Town Council that a parade was part of the plans, but Mayor Joe DeVito said Thursday that he’s met with the group and a parade is no longer under consideration.
“They tell me that none of that is going to happen at this event,” DeVito said.
The group must meet certain requirements to use the park, and its application is under review, DeVito said. “At this point, there is nothing glaring that says they don’t meet the requirements.”
“Make no mistake, if you are not against this movement, you are for it,” Danny Norwood, describing himself as a father, grandfather and follower of Jesus Christ, told council members Wednesday, which brought applause.
National LGBTQ+ groups are on a “twisted spiritual crusade” to steal the innocence of kids, Norwood said, adding he believes it is no coincidence that the event is proposed near a school.
“I would ask everybody in this community, on this council, to consider what we’re letting in,” Norwood said. “The snake has crawled under the door.”
The event is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 18, when school will not be in session.
Supporters say Pride festivals are safe, welcoming events where people can find support and information and have a good time, too.
“My family will be there, and we look forward to celebrating all of God’s beloved children with you,” said Mary Foster, describing herself as a straight cisgender female who is married and has a son who is transgender.
Cisgender means a person’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth; transgender means a person’s gender does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Those who don’t want to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community “should stay home,” said Foster, adding she’s been been frustrated and embarrassed that there is so little to honor the LGTBQ+ community in Beaufort County.
The LGBTQ+ Lowcountry Pride Group says its mission is to promote the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in the Lowcountry by educating society, honoring its heritage, advocating for its culture and celebrating diversity.
Wright said the event is family oriented and will include vendors, a bounce house and face painting.
This story was originally published August 10, 2023, 12:28 PM.
For some 20 years, the town of Port Royal has been waiting to see the underutilized industrial property abutting Battery Creek turned into a gem. Even when the port property was still owned by South Carolina Ports Authority, the town began preparing a vision that might include a marina, housing, restaurants, public parks and a promenade.Finally, in 2017, Grey Ghost Properties LLC bought it and put together a master plan. Anticipation grew. Then, in late 2021, Grey Ghost ...
For some 20 years, the town of Port Royal has been waiting to see the underutilized industrial property abutting Battery Creek turned into a gem. Even when the port property was still owned by South Carolina Ports Authority, the town began preparing a vision that might include a marina, housing, restaurants, public parks and a promenade.
Finally, in 2017, Grey Ghost Properties LLC bought it and put together a master plan. Anticipation grew. Then, in late 2021, Grey Ghost sold the project to well-heeled Safe Harbor Marinas, setting the stage for the town’s vision to become reality.
But residents haven’t been happy with what they’ve seen so far from Safe Harbor and that concern came to a head at a meeting Wednesday. Safe Harbor had been invited to give an update but it was a no-show, which riled up residents even more. Also aggravating the mood of the town are trespassing signs that Safe Harbor recently put up on the narrow 2-mile stretch of waterfront where the marina and housing are planned. For years, residents have enjoyed access to portions of the port property and the waterfront, even though it’s technically not public. Residents took the signs as a rebuke from Safe Harbor over recent criticism of its plans.
Council members — including Mayor Joe DeVito and Councilman Kevin Phillips, the town’s candidates for mayor — expressed, at length, their own concerns with the progress of the project. DeVito and Phillips explained what their approach would be to lead the town forward. The election is Nov. 7.
And for the second time in two weeks, the Town Council went into executive session to discuss the town’s development agreement with Safe Harbor Marina. That agreement spells out what’s expected from the project.
Tricia Fidrych, a Port Royal resident, received hearty applause when she said liability issues may have prompted Safe Harbor to put up the no trespassing signs on the impressive property “but the message conveyed by those signs is undeniable.”
It was “deeply disappointing,” Fidrych added, that Safe Harbor was not at the meeting with a presentation. She called it a lost opportunity to respond to concerns raised by residents and to share a timeline and details. Those concerns include a preliminary housing plan that would feature all rental townhomes and single family homes. Large cranes that are in use to assemble docks on the Port Royal site – for use at other sites that Safe Harbor manages – also are sticking in the craw of residents.
“What happened to the dream?” said Barbara Berry, another resident. “What happened to what we thought was going to come here because it’s not coming.”
A friend of hers, she said, was on the road in the area known as The Bluff looking at the sunset when a black SUV drove up and told her to leave. Port Royal, she said, is a walking community.
“I’m just incredibly sad and disappointed,” Berry said.
Residents want to know what’s going on with the development, which will define the community, including its aesthetic and property values, Gail Tramontano said. Transparency, she added, builds trust.
“But secrecy builds contempt and I think that’s a very important issue to be addressed,” Tramontano said. “I really feel the council should be on top of it and holding Safe Harobr accountable with what they are doing.”
Mayor DeVito called the plans for the port property “one of the most important developments for the town of Port Royal.”
He knows everybody is disappointed, he said. The council is too. “But we’re not done,” DeVito said. “We’re just getting started.”
DeVito added that he wanted to “put some real facts on the table” so residents understand what’s going on.
First, he said, the plan for the all-rental housing was put forth by The Beach Company, which is handling the housing portion of the development, and not Safe Harbor.
“They are doing, at this point of time, what I call fishing,” DeVito said. “And we voiced our opinions to them very loudly about what they proposed. Now we have to see what they come back with.”
DeVito emphasized that the project at this time is in the preliminary stages and the town has issued no permits to build anything. The moment somebody asks for a permit, then provisions of the development agreement and planned unit development documents will kick in, DeVito said.
The trespassing signs, DeVito added, are disappointing to the entire council, which found out by email that the signs were going up. But Safe Harbor does own the property, he added.
The town, DeVito said, is not afraid of legal action if it comes to that, but having conversations with Safe Harbor is a better approach than being adversarial and getting the lawyers involved.
The town, DeVito said, is coming up on 20 years of trying to find somebody to develop the port property and it took 17 years for the Ports Authority to sell it. In the past two years, he noted, Safe Harbor has invested more money than anybody else. Safe Harbor, he said, was a willing partner on a land exchange in which the town was able to secure a public park in a better location.
Phillips, who is running against DeVito, said the town has been nice — and good neighbors — to Safe Harbor, which has not worked.
“When you are dealing with a bully, they only understand one thing,” Phillips said.
The town has tools at its disposal and should use them, he said.
In response to the trespassing signs, Phillips suggested that the town hold sunset parties every night at the end of 13th Street, which leads to the waterfront and past Safe Harbor property. “See you all out there,” he said.
Van Willis, town manager, said property records show that the public right-of-way extending from 13th Street ends at the rail corridor, short of the waterfront. But the town was still verifying that as of Thursday morning.
This story was originally published October 12, 2023, 12:55 PM.