In burgeoning southern Brunswick County, Sunset Beach town officials have given the green light to a project that has the potential to reshape their community.
That project involves making a cascade of improvements to Sea Trail Plantation, a 2,000-acre golf and country club development located near the Sunset Beach bridge that dates to 1977. Plans for the upgrades and additions have been – literally – on the drawing board for several years, but only recently did developers and town officials reach an agreement on the details.
“A lot came down to protecting the natural vegetation,” said Sunset Beach’s planning director, Chad Staradumsky, adding that Riptide’s proposals, overall, received lengthy scrutiny.
With an agreement in place, the developer – Riptide Builders Development Inc. – can move forward with plans to complete the purchase of remaining Sea Trail properties and turn the development into a destination for golfers, beachgoers and special event groups. It’s been a dream of Riptide partner Robert Hill for years.
“He wants it to be like Pinehurst,” said Shirley Johnson, a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Sloane Realty; she’s also a Sea Trail resident. “I’m very much in favor of what he’s doing.”
Despite decades-old visions for Sea Trail and Riptide’s portfolio of plans, a lack of town approval has meant that progress on revitalizing the community has moved ahead in a piecemeal fashion.
Hill and his business partner Donald Bean own Riptide Builders Development, the parent company of Riptide Builders LLC. In 2020, Riptide Builders purchased all the platted lots in Sea Trail from owner Chinaway Development Corporation LLC. Since then, Riptide has completed the 49-single-family-home Byrd Watch neighborhood and is finishing up the 88-townhome Eastwood Bluff development.
Last March, another Riptide entity, Sea Trail Investments, struck a deal with Chinaway to buy, for about $2.5 million, Sea Trail’s Golf Resort & Convention Center and adjacent parking lot, along with an abutting 15-acre undeveloped lot and the Sea Trail Village Activity Center nearby. In late October, they expect Sea Trail Investments to close on the remaining properties: the three golf courses and their clubhouses.
“We’ll partner with an entity we’re calling our strategic partner to develop the hotel site and renovate the golf courses and clubhouses,” Hill said. “We’re almost done with the convention center. We will hire professional management teams to manage the golf courses day-to-day, along with the convention center and hotel when that is built.”
Plans call for restaurants and other food and beverage services, retail shops, office space and more multifamily development.
“For us, making that huge investment, we needed to know the town would support us,” Hill said.
For starters, Riptide will build more high-end rental condos to accommodate visiting golfers and conventioneers, Hill said. When Chinese company Chinaway purchased Sea Trail out of bankruptcy in 2007, there were rental condos available to groups booking the convention center. That number has dwindled, according to Hill.
When the town of Sunset Beach required the Chinaway investors to submit their plans for review and regulation, they lost interest in doing very much with, or to, their new property.
The quality of the golf courses suffered as a result; one golf club has been shuttered for a while, and the convention center closed in 2019.
Hill said at first his meetings with town officials after Riptide Builders’ 2020 purchase of platted lots were frustrating.
“They started taking development-by-right away; we had to get special use permits. They started changing [minimum] lot sizes to larger, limiting density. They were moving the goalposts in the middle of the game,” he said. “We battled for two-and-a-half years.”
The process was a challenge for the town’s planning board as well, planning director Chad Staradumsky said. For one thing, they were working with a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) that had not been updated since 2012, when Sunset Beach was smaller and more seasonal. The existing UDO did present barriers to what Riptide wanted to do; thus, the need for special use permits.
Staradumsky said he understands that when a developer has to obtain special use permits for everything, then “everything feels like a problem.”
The parties did eventually work toward a consensus.
“What [Sea Trail developments] will do for the tax base is tremendous in terms of hospitality, food and beverage [revenues],” Hill said. “ We’re pouring all this money into the largest residential development in south Brunswick County and have all the amenities come back that were supposed to be here.”
And Sunset Beach just approved a new UDO, one that Staradumsky says is much more user-friendly rather than user-restrictive.
Meanwhile, with the closing scheduled on the golf courses and golf clubs, Sea Trail Investments is in a position to “start calling some strategic partners who have expressed an interest in working with us … to provide funding and expertise on the hotel construction and golf course renovation,” Hill said. “We’ll be hitting the ground running.”
He and Bean, along with Parker Smith, own a company called Golf Trek, which sells golf play-and-stay packages to almost every major golf course in the region, according to Hill. Smith will be involved in developing the Sea Trail hotel and in renovating the village activity center and golf courses.
Johnson, as a Coldwell Banker Sloane broker, is looking forward to new housing units coming onto the market. As a Sea Trail resident, she’s excited that her community will be revived. But she’s concerned about the need for adequate infrastructure to support the explosive growth she sees in the area: three new developments along Old Georgetown Road and on Calabash Road.
“We’re going to have some growing pains,” she said.
Staradumsky, who has worked as a planner for Oak Island and Burgaw before coming to Sunset Beach three years ago, understands all too well.
“Infrastructure will be behind,” he acknowledged. “I’m 36. I grew up in the middle part of Brunswick County. Nobody could have predicted what we’re seeing. Leland got ahead of it, but mostly, we’re reacting. We’re having to adapt to all of this being the third-fastest-growing county in the state, and right next to the second-fastest-growing county in South Carolina.
“Mostly everywhere we have water and sewer; there’s very little septic left, but in terms of roads, that’s where we lean on [NC] DOT. We have to find a balance between the state being very developer-friendly and keeping our [town’s] core values.”