HILTON HEAD ISLAND -- For seven generations, the Barnwell family has held on to the heart of their land on the north end of Hilton Head Island. They'd like to make sure it stays that way for the next seven and beyond.
Like other native islanders, the family has sold bits and pieces to capitalize on the wave of development that first hit the barrier island about 50 years ago. Led by family patriarch Thomas Barnwell Jr., the family has developed a string of neighborhoods.
Now they have a concept for holding on to the rest of their property -- an idea that could become a model for other Gullah-Geechee families facing the dilemma of keeping evermore expensive land that's been handed down, one generation to another, since slavery ended.
The family plans to develop the land into mixed-use buildings with retail on the lower floors and living space above, nine town homes and a cluster of 35 cottages. They would lease the buildings and homes to themselves and others, retaining ownership of the property.
At a meeting last week, Planning Commission members unanimously recommended granting a zoning change from residential to planned development.
Neighbors generally are supportive of the project, but do have some concerns about nearby roads not being equipped to handle more traffic.
The plan is for the family to build two mixed-use buildings around the ruins of an early 1800s tabby home that was once part of Cotton Hope Plantation. The ruins would be restored to their original condition in hopes they'll become the focal point for the public portion of Tabby Village.
Because the family wants some retail businesses in some buildings, it is asking the town to transfer those commercial rights from three other acres it owns along Skull Creek. That waterfront property would then remain natural.
"We're trying to do some advance planning," Barnwell said. "Before the bridge (connecting the island to the mainland), native people used to own and control over 2,500 acres of land on the island. That's not the case today."
Today, native islanders own fewer than 1,000 acres, according to Barnwell.