Skip to main content
Original Issue

Growing Pains As sprawling golf communities devour South Carolina's Low Country, some residents ask, How much is too much?

The PGA tour came to Hilton Head Island, S.C., last week for its
annual four-day infomercial on the charms of this exclusive strip
of real estate. The WorldCom Classic, won by Justin Leonard, was
played on the beautiful Harbour Town Golf Links alongside the
sparkling Atlantic in chamber-of-commerce weather. Hilton Head
couldn't have looked more appealing--an adult playground of yachts
and kayaks, fueled by cold beer and spicy seafood served with a
dash of Southern hospitality. Television viewers were left with
the impression that the Hilton Head area would be a nice place to
live, and therein lies the root of a problem that threatens to
engulf the region.

Hilton Head is only the most visible part of Beaufort County, the
heart of the Low Country made famous by Pat Conroy novels and
countless movies, including Forrest Gump. The island's annual
star turn on network TV during the WorldCom Classic has helped
turn it into more than simply a destination for golf-mad
vacationers. The lighthouse framing the home hole at Harbour Town
has also served as a beacon for the well-to-do dreaming of
relocating or retiring to a house on a golf course by the
seashore. "We call it the second Yankee invasion," says Roger
Pinckney XI, a writer and community activist whose family--which
includes two signers of the U.S. Constitution--has lived in the
area since the 1760s. "The Low Country is on the verge of
becoming one endless gated golf course community."

Until 1956 Hilton Head was accessible only by ferry and had a
population in the hundreds, mostly Gullah blacks, whose West
African-rooted culture had thrived in the Low Country since the
time of slavery. In the 46 years since the J. Wilton Graves
Bridge connected Hilton Head to the mainland, about 45,000
residents have colonized the 12-mile-long island, building more
than 40 golf courses along the way. With practically every inch
of Hilton Head now spoken for, those seeking to replicate the
lifestyle enjoyed there have spilled into the rest of Beaufort
County, creating a culture clash between the moneyed new arrivals
and the small-town ruralists they are displacing.

Last week Beaufort County's latest high-end golf community,
Berkeley Hall, was showcased for a select few. There are 404
building lots on the 860-acre property, with homesites starting
at $209,500 and going up to $1.5 million for a river view. (Land
ownership comes with golf privileges; 366 nonproperty memberships
are also being sold, for $100,000 each.) Berkeley Hall is near
the town of Bluffton (pop. 1,233), seven miles west of Hilton
Head on U.S. 278, the main road that runs through the island and
southern Beaufort County. Berkeley Hall is as close to Savannah
as it is to Harbour Town, but that has done nothing to lessen the
importance of its golf. The 36 gorgeous holes sculpted by Tom
Fazio at Berkeley Hall (at a cost of $27 million) have created
such a buzz that Tour players Rich Beem, Russ Cochran, Rocco
Mediate and Loren Roberts stopped by to tour the grounds last
week, while Sergio Garcia dropped in for a photo shoot. Garcia
enthused that the tee boxes were more perfectly manicured than
Augusta National's, while his father, Victor, was so entranced by
the practice facilities that he spent much of the week using them
to tune up his game.

Berkeley Hall's driving range has its own bar and lounge to go
along with a six-acre short-game practice area and an
air-conditioned indoor learning center with video cameras and
computers. Outside, the members pound Pro V1s while stationed in
front of oversized fans. "We don't want our people to sweat,"
says Duke Delcher, the 1997 U.S. Walker Cupper who is a sales
executive for the development.

Until recently this kind of swank living in such a humble
setting seemed as unlikely as Donald Trump's building his next
skyscraper in Queens. That changed in 1990 when Colleton River
Plantation--395 homesites sprinkled around a course designed by
Jack Nicklaus two miles west of Hilton Head--threw open its
doors. "The tremendous success of Colleton changed the entire
landscape," says Delcher. "Before that, if you were on this side
of the bridge, you didn't exist." A second 18, designed by Pete
Dye, was added at Colleton six years later, along with 300
attendant homesites.

In 1995-96 Colleton's visionary developer, John Reed, opened
Belfair Plantation right next door. This was an even more
up-market community, built around 36 Fazio-designed holes.
Belfair's runaway success solidified the formula for development
on the U.S. 278 corridor: brand-name golf used as the carrot to
sell pricey real estate. Before the 1990s were over, two more
developments went in along 278--The Crescent and Eagle's
Pointe--as well as a sprawling retirement community, Sun City.
All of these properties have courses at their cores.

All this golf-related building was part of a trend in the go-go
'90s. The number of course openings nationally mirrored the bull
market Dow Jones as well as Tiger Woods's Q rating. In 1990 fewer
than 300 new courses opened in the U.S., according to the
National Golf Foundation. The numbers steadily climbed in the
early '90s, reaching 468 new courses in 1995 and a record 524 in
2000. Then came the decline. Only 377 courses opened last year,
and the NGF projects that just 325 will come to market in 2002.
Yet Beaufort County has remained immune as this golf glut has
depressed sales and prices nationwide. Berkeley Hall began
peddling lots and memberships in October 2000, when its courses
were still piles of dirt. (Today construction is beginning on the
44,000-square-foot clubhouse and a separate, 15,000-square-foot
fitness center.) Even with the slowdown after Sept. 11, sales at
Berkeley Hall are far ahead of the most optimistic projections,
with 280 homesites having already been snapped up--in a recent
31-day period 29 lots were sold--as well as 220 golf-only
memberships. The success of Berkeley Hall has encouraged Reed to
pull the trigger on his next project, across U.S. 278 from
Berkeley Hall. There, on a 3,500-acre parcel known as Buckwalter,
he plans to build two, possibly three, communities (with as many
as 4,000 houses) and at least another 54 holes.

Says Reed, "We've been successful because we're not just selling
golf, but community, too. As a country we're getting back to the
basics in life--back to family, back to nature, back to the Lord.
We try to encourage this by utilizing traditional architecture,
incorporating gathering spots into our communities, hiring very
friendly staff. We want it to feel like going back to Grandma's
house, where everything was safe and good."

Some locals see a darker side to the sales pitch. "The
traditional Southern lifestyle is being marketed, but it is a
euphemism for something else entirely," says Hilton Head
resident Emory Campbell, the executive director emeritus of the
Penn Center, a cultural preservation center and museum that
dates back to Reconstruction. "Most of these gated communities
are called plantations. There is a certain audience that hears
that word, and it excites them." These recent arrivals have
been, says Campbell, "devastating for the indigenous population
and culture."

Twenty years ago there was still a thriving black community in
southern Beaufort County. It was possible to make a living in
commercial fishing or farming (bell peppers, cucumbers, lima
beans). But in recent years the working class has been driven off
its land by rising property taxes. (Since 1990 property taxes in
Beaufort County have increased 12%.) Many residents now bemoan a
lack of diversity and an increase in racial tension in the Hilton
Head area. "The economic disparity between the average black
person in Beaufort County and the average white person is
staggering," says Pinckney. "There is a bitterness here that may
not be articulated, but it is certainly felt. Go to a McDonald's
off 278 and talk to the black people working there. No wonder
they're pissed off--they're slapping burgers for minimum wage,
while their grandparents owned their own homes."

The disenfranchisement cuts across racial lines. U.S. 278 used to
be a pleasant portal onto Hilton Head, a verdant roadway that
hinted at the oasis ahead. Along the corridor of new golf-course
developments the highway is now blighted with the earmarks of
sprawl: fast-food franchises, outlet centers, giant retail stores
and auto dealerships. "There has never been a master plan for
Beaufort County development because, frankly, no one ever thought
we needed one," says Bluffton mayor Hank Johnston.

Bluffton was established in 1852, but for almost 150 years the
place was little more than a patchwork of modest homes and
churches with little appreciable industry, the entirety of the
town covering one square mile. Alarmed at the way the world was
changing around them, Bluffton residents held an advisory
referendum in 1998 on a proposal to annex a 22,000-acre managed
forest owned by International Paper. It was a chance for the
townspeople to have some say in the development of the area.
According to Johnston, there was a staggering 87% voter turnout
and the proposal passed by nearly two to one. After two more
annexations Bluffton township had swelled to 48 square miles,
making it the fourth-largest municipality in the state despite
its tiny population. In the wake of the annexations Bluffton
moved from a "strong" mayoralty, a political designation where
the mayor is essentially the CEO and COO of the town, to a
decentralized government geared toward managing growth. A town
manager was hired and a planning department established. "In the
new Bluffton," says Johnston, "we're focused on quality-of-life
issues, not maximizing growth. Right now traffic is the Number 1
issue we have here."

U.S. 278 has always looked like the Santa Monica Freeway at rush
hour during tournament week, but in recent years bumper-to-bumper
traffic has become a daily occurrence, largely the result of the
thousands of new homes dumping cars onto an already crowded
four-lane divided roadway. "We have failed, frankly, to plan
traffic very well, and we need to do a better job," says Gary
Rowe, Reed's partner. Reed, Rowe and other developers who have
taken so much from Beaufort County are now giving something back.
Within the proposed Buckwalter development, eight miles of right
of way have been deeded to the city for a new Bluffton Parkway,
which will run parallel to 278, as well as 300 acres for public
parks. The cost of the construction, which is expected to be
completed in five to seven years, will be paid in part through
impact fees tacked onto building permits.

"In many respects we're perfect neighbors," Rowe says. "We build
low-density developments that have a low impact on existing
services, yet we supply a tremendous tax base. The residents in
our developments pay for schools and other community projects
that the vast majority will never use. With the parkway we're
mitigating a problem that existed long before we arrived."

With this tax windfall Bluffton is getting more than a
much-needed road system. A new high school, a post office and a
25,000-square-foot library are also under construction.

What the homeowners' taxes and the home builders' fees can't
eradicate, though, is Beaufort County's dirty secret: The
telegenic coastline and estuaries are rife with chemicals and
pollutants. One Beaufort County official says that silt samples
recently taken near Harbour Town were toxic enough to qualify for
Superfund cleanup. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, off
the western coast of Hilton Head, is blessed with huge deposits
of oysters, "but you can't eat 'em because there's so much
pollution in the salt creeks," says Pinckney. "This is the result
of so much commercial development, and golf courses and their
chemicals are the biggest culprits."

A third of the state's seafood revenue comes from Beaufort
County, and the area also attracts a healthy number of
eco-tourists. If these industries disappear, the Low Country
will become more dependent on development and the corresponding
service industry, a circular problem that would lead to even
more building and a greater strain on the environment. Since
1997 stringent environmental regulations have been in place,
but, says Pinckney, "It's way too little way too late."

Whatever challenges are facing Beaufort County, they are sure to
grow exponentially. "In the next 10 years the population of
Bluffton will probably equal that of Hilton Head and may exceed
it," says Rowe. "We're talking 45,000 to 50,000 people." The
demographic driving this boom should be familiar to anyone who
has seen The Big Chill, another movie shot in the Low Country.
Says Rowe, "There are 77 million Baby Boomers, and the vast
majority want to retire near the coast. They're at their peak
earning and inheritance years, and they tend not to leave their
money to their kids. We expect them to keep coming to the Low
Country through 2012."

And after that? What kind of development does the future hold for
Beaufort County? "Who knows?" says Rowe. "Maybe we'll start
building postretirement communities."

COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG JONES/GETTY IMAGES If you build it... About 15 miles from Harbour Town, where Leonard was victorious, the Berkeley Hall courses (right) nestle among 404 homesites.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Roots Campbell (in the ruins of a slave's fireplace) decries how the wealthy have displaced Hilton Head's indigenous population.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Tour director Delcher (with a drawing of Berkeley Hall's new clubhouse) and others have sold 70% of the community's homesites.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Prime rate The Berkeley Hall lots along the Okatie River, like these in a neighboring subdivision, are being sold for $1.5 million.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Land grab After a series of annexations, Mayor Johnston saw Bluffton become the fourth-largest municipality in South Carolina.

Says Campbell, "The traditional Southern lifestyle is being
marketed, but it is a euphemism for something else."

"Stringent regulations were put in place in 1997 to stem the
environmental damage, "but it's way too little too late," says

"There has never been a master plan for Beaufort County," says
Johnston, "because, frankly, no one ever thought we needed one."