Isle of Hope seeks local historic distinction for Bluff Drive, but faces marina opposition

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

The history of Isle of Hope is almost as old as the history of Savannah itself. The small island community in southeastern Chatham County was settled as a military outpost three years after the colony was founded in 1733.

Since its founding, the unincorporated neighborhood has hosted plantations, crabbers and oystermen, a Freedman's village, Civil War Confederate camps, and legendary turtle soup farm.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

A group of Isle of Hope residents want to protect the history along Bluff Drive — and the sprawling, marsh-front homes that have risen since the late-1800s — from development and destruction.

"Bluff Drive has gone from literally a cart path to a dirt road to a shell road with oysters, to the road we see today that now has houses facing this beautiful horseshoe bend in the river, which is the Intracoastal Waterway. Take a left to go to Maine. Take a right to go to Florida," said Dan Willoughby, chairman of the Isle of Hope Historical Association.

Willoughby and the Isle of Hope Historical Association are spearheading an effort for the community to be one of the first in Chatham County to be protected as a local historic district, a distinction only held by the Pinpoint Gullah Geechee community near Skidaway Island. 

Isle of Hope seeking to protect Bluff Drive only

Isle of Hope is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but local protections offer more stringent development and construction guidelines, particularly for communities in unincorporated Chatham County, where zoning allows for much greater freedom than property owners in incorporated municipalities.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Willoughby said a group of residents began talking about applying for local protections in mid-2021, and decided to shrink the proposed historic district’s footprint from what the National Register includes.

"We just didn't think that there was enough happening to protect our character and that was, in some of our minds, the most important thing that we needed to do," Willoughby said.

A similar effort took place in 2007, with the district proposed to incorporate all of Isle of Hope, but received enough opposition from businesses and homeowners to quash the effort. This time, Willoughby said that by focusing on Bluff Drive between Parkersburg Road and Noble Glen Drive, many of the past reasons for opposition have vanished.

"We knew that when we were starting again in 2021. So, we studied that. We went and looked at the materials from that 2007 effort, and what we found was that we needed to address some of the concerns that had been raised in the 2000s," Willoughby said.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

The historic district is a county-level protection that provides much of the same guidelines and restrictions on future developments that historic neighborhoods in Savannah (Cuyler-Brownsville, the Victorian District and Carver Village, to name a few) require. It was approved in 2005, but a lapse in funding and staffing of the county's historic preservation commission over the past several years have stalled any efforts for county-level preservation. The commission was reformed in January of this year, with Isle of Hope's application to become a local historic district as one of the first items the fledgling commission handled.

Opposition from Isle of Hope Marina owners, homeowners brings delays

While the application was approved 3-1 by the Chatham County Historic Preservation Commission in July, several homeowners and the new owners of the marina on Bluff Drive spoke in opposition to the project.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

A duo of property owners opposed the application because of a lack of "townhall" meetings. Willoughby said the historical association met with impacted property owners one-on-one instead. Of 15 people who submitted public comments to the July historic preservation commission meeting, one-third were in opposition. 

Willoughby said the opposition is expected, particularly from the new owners of the marina, but the importance of protecting Bluff Drive is too important to delay.

"There's basically no (zoning) restrictions. We're concerned that Isle of Hope might become Thunderbolt," Willoughby said.

Beginning in 1998, the historic shrimping village of Thunderbolt on the Wilmington River filled land along the river banks and built several high-density condominiums along River Drive, effectively blocking the waterfront views of long-time homeowners and businesses.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

A letter from the marina owners' lawyer questioning the validity of the application process has stalled the association's efforts for historic protections, resulting in a legal review of the application process, thus far, from Chatham County. Once the review is finished, the county will either move the application to a final vote before County Commission or the process will have to begin anew.

TPG Marina Vice President of Operations Eric Bradley said the company has no intentions of making major expansions, including dry-dock storage nor a restaurant, as community rumors suggested.

"We really like the look and feel of the community and certainly don't want to detract from that," Bradley said. "That's part of the ambiance of the marina, and it's part of the (marina) amenities really, to be in that atmosphere."

Willoughby said TPG's efforts to delay the county vote have not deterred residents.

"From the very beginning, we worked with the MPC. We went to them for advice. They gave us advice. We followed that advice... now we want that review to go forward and everything to be right because we don't want it to be challenged. We think this is our best opportunity to finally get real protection," Willoughby said.

Quest for protections could trigger other communities to follow

While the ordinance to protect county communities with historic districts has been in place since 2005, Isle of Hope is only the second community to go for such a distinction. Pinpoint was awarded the protections in 2009.

A 2015 study commissioned by the Historic Savannah Foundation found that local historic districts brought in more tourism money, increased construction and development activity and raised property values. Savannah has eight historic districts, half of which are subject to stringent design and construction guidelines and governed by a board of volunteers, just like the Chatham County Historic Preservation Commission.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Austin Hill, chairman of the Historic Savannah Foundation and an Isle of Hope property owner, said he hopes Isle of Hope's application for protection prompts other communities to follow, especially after the demolition of several historical homes in Isle of Hope and nearby.

"Chatham County is made up of all these tiny communities like Montgomery, like Isle of Hope, like Pinpoint... if they are not protected historically, if they don't keep their identity as communities, they'll be lost into what is just going to become a greater Savannah," Hill said. "And, I think it's really important that that doesn't happen."

Zoe covers growth and how it impacts communities in the Savannah area. Find her at znicholson@gannett.com, @zoenicholson_ on Twitter, and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Isle of Hope seeks local historic distinction for Bluff Drive, but faces marina opposition


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