After months of waiting in limbo, the 6,000-acre Woodlands Nature Reserve off Ashley River Road last month got the green light to resume community events in the spring. 

Woodlands reached a short-term solution Nov. 16 with the Dorchester County Planning and Zoning Department after the property’s events and camping operations were suspended in September due to permitting issues. 

“We’re thrilled that we’re able to open the gates back to the property for three events this spring, and hopefully there will be more in summer 2023 and beyond,” said Vince Iwinski, the venue’s manager for music and events. “We’re working with the county to make sure that we have all the proper code designations in place so that we can allow for year-round camping, kayaking and biking at some point in 2023.” 

Iwinski said he met with Dorchester County officials at the end of October to present the Woodlands’ plan to hold events in a different area going forward. Iwinski said Woodlands is developing a piece of land with an entrance a mile north of its main entrance that is two miles back off of S.C. Highway 61 with two large parking lots and space for a stage called North Lake Venue.

North Lake Venue is located farther into the reserve property than where previous events have been held and addresses concerns the county had with traffic and noise that have come up over the last few years. 

As Iwinski unfolded the plan for the new venue, he said county officials realized Woodlands was paying attention to the worries that surfaced about previous events congesting the traffic along Ashley River Road near the main entrance to events. 

“The new location will give us the opportunity to get people off of the road and into the property exponentially quicker than we had in the past,” Iwinski said. 

Woodlands’ owner Holland Duel added, “We have worked hard to incorporate the county’s and the community’s ideas into our newly designed location within the property. We are very excited to share North Lake Venue with the public.”

New concept will lead to re-evaluating zoning

The Woodlands has an additional layer of specialized zoning on top of county codes because it is in the Ashley River Historic Overlay District, said Dorchester County Councilman Jay Byars. 

“Really, our normal zoning just did not have a way to define what Woodlands is doing,” Byars told Charleston City Paper. “It’s a unique concept. We need to re-evaluate the specialized zoning out there. The staff is looking at adding a zoning amendment that would make an allowable use for what they’re trying to do. This is a huge piece of property and the [Woodlands team] has the ability to do some unique things. [The county] has got to do our part to be able to help make them successful.”

The temporary agreement reached between the nature reserve and the county allows for special events in the short term as the two entities work toward a long-term resolution that hinges upon rezoning amendments. It could involve a blanket permit for outdoor events. 

The annual Charleston Bluegrass Festival will return to Woodlands in spring 2023

Now that the county understands the Woodlands business model, organizers said three events are waiting to be finalized for next year: a Savage Race obstacle course in February; the Charleston Bluegrass Festival in late March; and an arts centered gathering called Emergence in April. 

When event promoters failed to obtain the necessary permit to hold a Rainbow Kitten Surprise concert in July, it was a breaking point for Dorchester County officials. The situation was further exacerbated by traffic complaints the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office fielded from the community. What resulted was a temporary halt of concerts, community gatherings and outdoor activities the reserve has hosted since 2019.

The Woodlands has a hybrid business model. Its primary function is sustainable forestry and wildlife habitat, but the entertainment events sustain its ecotourism operation, which includes a tier of camping options, including glamping, and nature tours such as kayaking, hiking and biking. To end events would compromise the property’s commercial appeal. 

Iwinski met at the end of October with Byars, who told the City Paper in September he felt a resolution could be reached with improved communication. At their next meeting, Iwinski and Byars toured the reserve. 

“It’s a beautiful and very unique site,” Byars told the City Paper. “I’m very excited about what [Woodlands is] doing. It was good to get boots on the ground. The team over there really just wants to try to do something special.”

Iwinski said he and Byars spent almost two hours walking the property, and Byars understood the Woodlands’ niche business model. 

“He now understands what we mean by being an event space that thrives by promoting ecotourism and camping on the property,” Iwinski said. “I think that he tapped into the overall concept of our mission and what we’re doing out there.”

Byars said resolving the zoning and permitting issues with Woodlands could prove to be invaluable for Dorchester County and the Charleston area because the reserve intends to operate as a site for year-round ecotourism, which is centered on nature-focused vacations and leisure activities. 

“Woodlands creates a special opportunity that doesn’t really exist anywhere else in Dorchester County and not a whole lot of other places in the state,” Byars said. 

Iwinski said, “I was able to get an audience with the county and explained that I’m going into my 25th year of producing music events. I think that there was a certain level of comfort on their part knowing that I’m utilizing nearly a quarter century of experience to get this venue off the ground.”

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