Woodlands’ operations are at a standstill after issues getting special events permitted from Dorchester County | Steve Aycock file photo

Woodlands Nature Reserve, a 6,000-acre chunk of land tucked off Ashley River Road in Dorchester County, has suspended all activities after county officials denied event permits last month for an Aug. 27 Slightly Stoopid concert and Resonance Festival planned for Sept. 15-17. The fate of a Dirty Heads concert planned for Oct. 1 has yet to be determined. 

“We don’t know where we stand,” said Vince Iwinski, manager for music and events at the venue. “There’s never been any concerns brought to our attention, so the denial of permits came as a surprise because there had not been a phone call from anybody from Dorchester County indicating that there’s been any concerns.”

Zoning issues raised

The county cited in its denial of the August concert and September festival because it said those activities were “not found to be incidental and subordinate to the permitted primary use of the property as required under Section 10.2.3 of the Dorchester County Zoning and Land Development Standards,” according to records. 

Since 2019, Woodlands has hosted five larger-scale events with additional smaller community and arts events, Iwinski said. He expressed uncertainty about why zoning questions have been raised. 

“The business license allows for arts, recreation and entertainment,” he said. “Hence our uncertainty why the county is denying permits when we are operating within the scope of the business license.”

Dorchester County did not respond to the City Paper’s several requests for zoning information or for comment about what was going on with the venue’s permit. 

Woodlands owner Holland Duell, who lives on the property, said he feels Woodlands’ activities fall under ecotourism and social cultural events, which are permitted uses according to the Ashley River Historic Overlay District ordinances that govern the property. Although, ecotourism is a secondary land use, he said. 

“Sustainable forestry and wildlife habitat have been the dominant land use for decades at the Woodlands Nature Reserve,” Duell told City Paper. “In 2019, we began to open the reserve to the public through ecotourism, social and cultural events. We hope to collaborate with the government so that we can offer nature-based experiences for [the] public rather than remaining strictly a timber operation.”

Traffic concerns

The reserve held an unpermitted Rainbow Kitten Surprise concert July 1 that Dorchester County records said was “of unprecedented scale” and “caused serious life-safety and traffic issues,” making traffic on Highway 61 caused by event attendees another concern outside of frequency of events.

The event promoters didn’t apply for a permit for the July 1 event, Iwinski said, but he and his team were not aware of that and were not contacted about the infraction. 

Dorchester County Councilman Jay Byars of Summerville told City Paper he received several email complaints about traffic in the area after the July event and heard that residents complained to the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office. 

Byars said he is under the impression that Woodlands functions primarily as a preserve with occasional small-scale events. 

“There’s some things that need to be addressed … because that location is not supportive of 5,000 people coming out there without some major planning … and based on what [Dorchester County] staff’s giving me [as] feedback, that has not been happening. … That zoning is not [meant] for an event venue.”

The intent is not to try to completely shut Woodlands down, Byars said, but to find a solution for everybody. 

How Woodlands operates

Woodlands Nature Reserve operates as a nature destination offering tiers of camping, kayaking, biking and hiking throughout the year. Woodlands is not currently open for these activities while it navigates permitting issues. 

“Up until all this started to unfold, we have been open every weekend and people have been coming out here to camp,” Iwinski said. 

Special events sustain Woodland’s ecotourism operation, he said. Woodlands has hosted a camping-based Charleston Bluegrass Festival with about 3,000 attendees annually since 2019, and a smaller scale bluegrass festival held in 2017 and 2018 before the property launched its events program fully. 

“I believe that event speaks to the kind of symbiotic relationship between immersing yourself in a natural setting and seeing music outdoors,” he said. 

Woodlands collaborates with Dorchester County by partnering with Keep Dorchester County Beautiful to provide recycling and trash receptacle service and contracting county police to direct traffic on and off the property, Iwinski said. It partners regularly with area companies such as Charleston Kayaking, On Purpose Adventures, Eco Tours, Sea Island Adventures and Middleton Place Equestrian Center, among others. 

“I believe we are the only entity in the county that is operating in the ecotourism space,” Iwinski said.

Neighborly advice

Andrew Girone, an accountant in Summerville, has been a resident in the neighborhood on Middleton Oaks Road across the street from the Woodlands property for 23 years and has spent a lot of time biking and hiking its trails. 

Girone said it seemed like each event he’s attended since 2018 was set up a little differently in regard to parking and stage locations, so there’s flexibility when it comes to addressing the issue of traffic on Highway 61. 

“Some events have not been a problem and some events have,” he said, “so I think there’s some logistical solutions.” He suggested more pre-show personnel and signs to direct traffic, multiple entrances to the property, and limiting single-day events as solutions.

“I think it’s a matter of finding some common ground between the residents, Dorchester County and the Woodlands,” he said. “[Woodlands] is a unique amenity to our neighborhood and county and probably a boon to sales tax revenues,” he said.

Rebuilding Woodlands

Before halting operations, Woodlands was developing a piece of land with an entrance a mile north of its main entrance that is two miles back off of Highway 61 with two large parking lots and space for a stage called North Lake Venue, Iwinski said. 

“There is an abundance of space that integrates with our forestry program allowing the public to enjoy the land, with ample parking,” Duell said. 

North Lake Venue and its parking are considerably further into the property than front acreage mainly used for previous events, he said. The road designated to offload cars from the highway will be eight times longer than the current road that files cars toward parking. The space was to be completed in time to host the Resonance Festival and Dirty Heads. 

“[Dorchester County] denied the [Resonance Festival] permit without fully digesting the operating procedures that were presented to them by the promoters as a part of the permit process,” Iwinski said. 

“I would love to pick the conversations back up,” he said, “and see if we can be an asset … and make Dorchester County proud.”

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