nature_2_351Sea Pines has influenced hundreds of planned communities throughout the United States, and its influence lives on today in the way projects work to balance nature and development.

One of the most venerated resort communities in the United States, the Sea Pines Resort, was honored with a ULI Award for Excellence in 1985. Ten years later, it received the ULI Heritage Award, which has been bestowed on only a handful of developments worldwide. Sea Pines has influenced hundreds of planned communities throughout the United States, and its influence lives on today in the way projects work to balance nature and development. 

When Charles Fraser first envisioned a residential development on the former timber land on south Hilton Head Island, there was no bridge to the island and barely any roadways. Native Americans, followed by European settlers and later plantation owners, predated Fraser’s founding of Sea Pines in 1956, but nothing had been built quite like it before, anywhere.

One of the most venerated resort communities in the United States, the Sea Pines Resort, was honored with a ULI Award for Excellence in 1985. Ten years later, it received the ULI Heritage Award, which has been bestowed on only a handful of developments worldwide. Sea Pines has influenced hundreds of planned communities throughout the United States, and its influence lives on today in the way projects work to balance nature and development. 

When Charles Fraser first envisioned a residential development on the former timber land on south Hilton Head Island, there was no bridge to the island and barely any roadways. Native Americans, followed by European settlers and later plantation owners, predated Fraser’s founding of Sea Pines in 1956, but nothing had been built quite like it before, anywhere.

nature_1_250Charles Fraser’s goal was to create a high-end community founded on the concept of improving the land for human enjoyment while preserving its natural beauty and native habitats.

Fraser’s goal was to create a high-end community founded on the concept of improving the land for human enjoyment while preserving its natural beauty and native habitats. Since then, Sea Pines has become a template for designers and developers seeking a balance between the environment and the land’s inhabitants, and its restrictions are a progenitor of ubiquitous covenants, codes, and restrictions of planned communities today. 

The idea, germinated during Fraser’s Yale University courses on land use law taught by professor Myres S. McDougal, was to create and preserve the best elements of a community by incorporating private-deed covenants into comprehensive development.

Innovative land planning and landscape design were also Sea Pines Resort hallmarks.
Fraser sought out the best people in the business. He began collaborating with Stewart Dawson and Hideo Sasaki of the landscape architecture firm Sasaki Dawson and DeMay. Sasaki pressed for a site plan that eschewed traditional house-lined streets in favor of what he later called an “interlocking finger plan” that clustered homes in groups similar to those formed around cul-de-sacs and dead-end roads. The T-shaped housing clusters backed up to the waterfront but did not dominate it, keeping most of the structures and buildings hidden among trees and plantings, all the while preserving waterfront views.

Fraser’s bold approach to green space was even more revolutionary, committing Sea Pines to setting aside 25 percent of the development area—1,300 of its 5,200 acres (530 of 2,100 ha)—to remain as undeveloped land that would provide animal habitat and open space, as well as human amenities, including miles of walking paths and bike trails. The Sea Pines Forest Preserve is a key distinguishing feature of the development and arguably hinted at the concept of ecoresorts that are now fairly mainstream. The Sea Pines Resort website also touts an “Audubon Society bird sanctuary with more than 350 species of birds . . . [plus] other indigenous wildlife, including deer, dolphins, sea turtles, and even alligators.”

A testament to the far-ranging influence of Sea Pines is how it shaped communities in following years. Designers all over the country borrowed key concepts implemented there, from the ironclad design restrictions that preserve the community character to road layouts with clustered housing and the preservation of land and habitat.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author John McPhee heralded the clever balance of the built and natural environments at Sea Pines in his 1977 book Encounters with the Archdruid, which lionized Fraser, David Brower, and other conservationists. “An aerial view of Sea Pines Plantation reveals the great number of houses and how close to one another they really are,” McPhee wrote, “whereas an observer on the ground—even in the most densely built areas—feels that he is in a partly cleared woodland with some houses blended into it.” Longtime colleague James Chaffin told the New York Times in 1996 that working with Fraser “was like being around Beethoven, Napoleon, and Jefferson all at the same time.”

Another aspect of the Sea Pines design was the small-village atmosphere of Harbour Town. Fraser’s brother, Joe, told Hilton Head Monthly magazine that Charles and his wife, Mary, had visited pedestrian-oriented villages in the Mediterranean where the streets were too narrow for modern automobiles, and that became the model for Harbour Town’s design.

“We needed some type of symbol for the new harbor, and Charles came up with the lighthouse idea—a real winner,” Joe recalled. “We started [building] it before the plans for the top were finished. The lighthouse has been so successful for photo-ops that it was made the carefully guarded logo for Sea Pines.”

Sea Pines has earned hundreds of awards over the years, from the American Institute of Architects and ULI to golf magazines and resort/leisure publications. Though Fraser died in 2002, his legacy lives on through the ULI/Charles Fraser Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development, created by many of his ULI colleagues.