The First Green Developer
On Earth Day 1970, a shrimp trawler from South Carolina slipped up the Potomac River. The trawler, owned by an African American fishing cooperative from Hilton Head Island, was met in Washington by Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel. Shrimpers presented Hickel with petitions containing tens of thousands of signatures opposing plans to build a huge petrochemical manufacturing plant on the Carolina coast, and they held a shrimp boil at the dock to show him the tasty benefits of clean water.
Aside from the shrimp, the event seemed like a typical Earth Day celebration—one of thousands being held around the country. The cruise even made national headlines, which cast it as a quintessential example of the nation’s burgeoning commitment to environmental quality.
All was not as it seemed, however. Shrimpers may have been the face of the protest, but it was the brainchild of the public relations department of the Sea Pines Company—the powerful development company behind one of the most popular resorts on the east coast. At its helm was a colorful developer, Charles Elbert Fraser, best known for popularizing a style of development that highlighted, rather than bulldozed, natural landscapes. Less than a year earlier, Fraser had become concerned that having a petrochemical producer just miles from his successful resort on Hilton Head might ruin the carefully crafted landscapes that drew vacationers to the island, and he threw significant resources into the fight to keep the factory out of South Carolina.
Fraser’s struggle against industrial pollution in 1970 hinged on a key claim: that tourism on the Hilton Head model was green. Sea Pines pioneered a design aesthetic that called attention to natural landscapes, and Fraser constantly touted his company’s vision and environmental record as evidence of the environmental benefits of tourism. But was it really green?
Getting to the bottom of this question is important still today, when it has become commonplace for real estate developers—even presidential candidates—to boast about how they are developers and dedicated conservationists. As we consider whether developers have environmental leadership to offer, it is helpful to take a look at what early “green” developers like Charles Fraser can tell us.
Charles Fraser’s interest in Hilton Head Island—a sea island sixty miles south of Charleston—began in 1950, when his father’s Georgia-based timber company purchased 19,000 acres of longleaf pine there. Between stints in college, Fraser worked with timber cutters on the island, where he surveyed the landscape and began to craft a vision for the island’s future.
Fraser honed his vision while studying at Yale Law School. There he immersed himself in courses on real estate law and learned all he could about how to regulate land use with protective covenants and deed restrictions. After graduating from Yale, Fraser took a road trip to planned communities along the east coast, where he spoke with developers about what they would change if they had the chance. When he returned to the South in 1956, Fraser was appointed vice-president of the Hilton Head Company, his father’s timber company. That same year the company had finished building a bridge to the island, making tourism a feasible replacement for timber.
The future of Hilton Head Island was up for grabs at a critical moment. Prosperity after World War II provided middle- and upper-class Americans with disposable income that could be used to take regular vacations and plan for retirement. New transportation networks and the availability of automobiles facilitated travel, and tourism and retirement home construction boomed.
Perhaps no part of the country benefited from this as much as coastal areas, which historian Andrew Kahrl calls the “Sunbelt’s sandy foundation.” Federal policies incentivized coastal construction in the southeast—at the expense of long-time African American residents—and led to a boom in development. As tourists flocked to the coast, developers kept up with demand by building multi-story hotels, condominiums, and houses on the beach, sometimes directly atop bulldozed dunes, and they dredged canals or filled in wetlands to create new high-priced waterfront real estate. Popular beach towns like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, featured a grid-like pattern of paved roads, houses, hotels, and condominiums broken up only by long piers jutting out into the ocean, all precariously perched atop a dynamic coastal ecosystem. These communities had (and still have) enormous environmental costs, but they generated vast sums of money for developers, who learned to maximize the number of people they could bring to high-priced coastal real estate.
The board members of the Hilton Head Company wanted to make Hilton Head a clone of these other profitable beach communities, but Charles Fraser argued the company should try out a new type of coastal development, one that would draw in high-end clients by limiting development and maintaining the island’s natural scenery. Conflicts over the island’s future led the Hilton Head Company to break apart, and Fraser’s father walked away with 3,400 acres on the southern tip of the island.
The partners of the Hilton Head Company were not the only people with doubts that Fraser’s new-fangled community could be successful, and he had difficulty getting financing for the project. But Fraser benefited from family connections. Fraser’s father sold the land on Hilton Head to Charles Fraser’s newly-formed Sea Pines Company for $1 million with a low interest rate and no regular payments.
Fraser immediately started work on his planned community, which he called Sea Pines Plantation. He lamented that coastal tourism created landscapes marred by “ugliness,” and his goal at Sea Pines was to “keep out ugliness that seems to follow” tourist development. He hired noted landscape architect Hideo Sasaki to develop a master plan that would give the island’s natural environment a starring role.
When it was complete, Sea Pines was unlike other coastal communities because it melded natural and man-made landscapes. Company planners staggered home sites and placed them well away from the beach. Although homes were sited to provide stunning views, planners hid these homes in groves of trees, mandated that they were painted in earth tones, and even fined builders if they removed too many trees during construction. Planners laid out winding roads that skirted key landscape features, and built miles of bike paths to minimize traffic. They imposed regulations that made signage barely visible. Charles Fraser even allocated 1,400 acres of land to remain perpetually undeveloped, and he famously spent $50,000 to save one live oak tree.
To keep his vision from being altered, Fraser wielded strict control over Sea Pines by becoming an early adopter of restrictive covenants and deed restrictions. All designs were subject to a review process headed by Fraser. These measures prevented property owners from changing virtually anything, including the color of their house and even the flora used to landscape their yard.
These traits made Sea Pines a far cry from the normal style of coastal development, and it quickly became one of the premiere destinations for tourists and retirees nationwide. By the 1970s, Sea Pines boasted dozens of tennis courts, four golf courses, 700 homes, and more than 1,400 condominiums. Hilton Head Island as a whole had 20,000 permanent residents and was attracting nearly one million visitors a year.
Fraser’s brand was built on being green. The master plan for Sea Pines made preserving ecological integrity a priority, and Fraser later remarked that “one’s duty is to dress and keep the earth” and to “protect it for the next generation and the next generation.” His vision even spawned a wave of development in which other developers sought to replicate the Sea Pines model. Compared to other coastal communities that date to the mid-twentieth century, it is easy to walk along the beach at Sea Pines even today and see that Fraser’s claims have some merit.
Yet Fraser’s vision was never about ecology. Sea Pines was built to look natural, but it was a carefully “dressed” landscape designed to suit the needs of visitors and provide a unique selling point. Sea Pines Plantation was a triumph of landscape design, not ecology.
Sea Pines officials often acted in ways that did not preserve ecological integrity, but did satisfy their aesthetic vision. After deciding that golf offered more of an attraction than hunting, Fraser completed the island’s first golf course in 1960. By 1974, Sea Pines alone had four nationally-known golf courses, which attracted visitors, created new opportunities for selling the high-priced real estate fronting each course, and stressed the island’s fragile ecosystem. Fraser spent millions on dredging to build an artificial harbor for his Harbour Town community—on the southwest end of the island—with repercussions for water quality and estuarine systems. Sea Pines also had a complex relationship with the island’s wildlife. Company officials believed that opportunities for wildlife interaction could be pleasant for visitors, but they shipped off wildlife like alligators and embarked on a wide-ranging mosquito control program.
Perhaps the most environmentally-problematic aspect of Sea Pines was simply its success. Fraser was able to tightly control what happened behind the gates of Sea Pines, but the rest of the island was up for grabs. As other developers broke into the Hilton Head market, unregulated construction created “big city problems” like waste disposal and unplanned development that strained the island’s ecosystems and led residents to try to rein in growth.
Charles Fraser’s focus on aesthetics also did not fit with the mantra of the environmental movement. Fraser had a knack for stirring up controversy with environmentalists despite his interest in environmental issues. In his profile in the New Yorker by John McPhee, Fraser famously characterized conservationists as “druids,” and one botanist later even described him as “the enemy.” Fraser and the environmental community did have overlapping goals, but environmental activists were always wary.
All of this has left Sea Pines, and Charles Fraser, with a complex environmental legacy. By the standards of today, the Sea Pines landscape perhaps does not seem as novel as it once did. Yet that should not obscure the revolutionary nature of Fraser’s vision. Since Fraser started working on the island—and because of his efforts—the United States has a lot more “green” developers than five decades ago. Many pay close attention to ecological principles by hiring botanists, land use experts, or water quality specialists to guide environmentally-responsible practices. Other developers simply hide destructive practices behind a green veneer.
The complex legacy of Sea Pines and the fate of Hilton Head Island is a reminder that we need to be wary of all of these claims now more than ever before. The success of Sea Pines is a testament to the public’s enjoyment of natural scenery. Yet scenery is not always compatible with ecology. Even responsibly-planned communities have a profit motive, which makes it difficult to foresee how well their landscapes will fare with time. As Fraser himself remarked in 1975, since he could not “rationally prove… that the rape of the land would be more profitable” than “the opposite… you might as well do it right.” This thinking led to a focus on natural landscapes, but it also kept profit calculations at the center of environmental quality—a dangerous approach that still informs environmental decision-making in the tourism and development industries.
The Sea Pines model is troubling for another reason. Beautiful scenery exists behind the gates of vacation communities—called “plantations” on Hilton Head—but many people cannot afford to enjoy these places. Fraser often talked about how he wanted everyone to enjoy Sea Pines, but the company’s business model used scenery to market Sea Pines to wealthy retirees and vacationers. Like Sea Pines, green communities are still enclaves for the wealthy, which undercuts their effectiveness in serving all but this select group.
Charles Fraser’s work is a reminder that developers play a critical role in designing with an eye to nature, but also that we should also remain skeptical about using their communities as a model for solving large-scale environmental problems.
Featured image: An aerial view of Ocean City, Maryland, in 1998. The grid-like pattern of roads, houses, condominiums, and hotels was common in beach communities, and the footprint of these communities dramatically expanded in the decades after World War II. The ongoing beach renourishment efforts highlight the dramatic environmental impact caused by this approach to coastal development. Photo by Tex Jobe, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1998.
Dr. William D. Bryan is an environmental historian who teaches at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His forthcoming book, “The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South,” explores how nature conservation shaped the American South after the Civil War. He is working on his second book, which explores the environmental vision of Charles Fraser and other early “green” developers. Website. Contact.