Jekyll Island eyes big change to conservation law

Officials, conservationists debate over development

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SAVANNAH, Ga. — Mired in a debate over how much room is left for future development on Jekyll Island, the state park’s governing board has proposed a solution that would essentially scrap the state law that for 42 years has guaranteed its beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests remain vastly unspoiled.

Conservationists say the change in the law being pursued by the Jekyll Island Authority has merit. The authority plans to ask the Georgia Legislature to do away with the 1971 law restricting development of hotels, golf courses and other amenities to 35 percent of the island’s land area.

The amended law would replace the percentage with a fixed acreage that total construction on Jekyll Island can’t exceed.

“Going by the fixed acreage does away with the percentage calculations that have caused controversy over countless years,” said Eric Garvey, spokesman for the Jekyll Island board. “The thinking was to put that to rest and focus on what everybody agrees on, which is how to preserve Jekyll Island.”

The existing law mandating that 65 percent of the island remain undeveloped sounds simple enough.

But Jekyll Island staff and environmental groups have been debating for months exactly how large the island is and how it should be measured as they’ve worked on a new master plan that guides the coastal park’s future conservation, maintenance and development. The last plan was adopted 17 years ago.

Attorney General Sam Olens weighed in with a legal opinion June 27 that concluded a task force helping draft the plan was wrong to exclude marsh from Jekyll Island’s total land area. Marshlands have been included in past calculations, and removing them would have shrunk the island’s size – and therefore pushed its developed acreage above the 35 percent limit.

A draft of the new master plan approved by the Jekyll Island board last Monday includes a recommendation for state lawmakers to limit total development to 1,675 acres. The draft says most of that acreage has already been used, and only 66 acres would remain open for future projects. Future commercial development would be restricted to an even smaller portion, just 20 acres.

“I’m supportive of going with the fixed acreage approach. It’s simpler and it takes the marsh completely out of the picture,” said David Egan, an island resident and co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. Egan also sat on the task force that sought to keep marsh out of the island’s official land area.

Still, Jekyll Island officials are having trouble winning over their critics.

That’s largely because the draft plan calculates the island’s overall size as 5,530 acres – a whopping 31 percent larger than it was under the last master plan at 4,226 acres.

That has Egan and other conservationists suspicious. If the Legislature fails to set a fixed acreage for development next year and the 35 percent rule is left intact, the larger land area would boost the amount of land open to construction on Jekyll Island to 326 acres. That’s more than half a square a mile, and five times the acreage island officials say they need.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of speculation you have to do about what their motives are and what’s really going on,” said David Kyler, executive director of the Center For a Sustainable Coast.

Jekyll Island spokesman Garvey said he believes island officials would abide by the 66-acre limit for new development even if the Legislature doesn’t change the law.

Georgia’s attorney general in his June opinion urged Jekyll Island officials to refrain from taking any action that would “increase substantially” the island’s overall acreage “until the General Assembly has been given the opportunity to weigh in.” It’s a point Olens makes twice in an eight-page letter.

Yet the Jekyll Island Authority Board plans a final vote in November. The Legislature won’t reconvene until January.

A legislative oversight committee of six lawmakers will review the new plan before Jekyll Island officials vote, and Garvey said that should satisfy Olens’ concern. A spokeswoman for the attorney general declined to comment.

Wealthy northern industrialists owned Jekyll Island and used it as a secluded winter getaway until 1947, when Georgia officials bought it and opened a state park there. Since 1971, the island’s guiding conservation policy has been the state law mandating that 65 percent of the island remain undeveloped.

That hasn’t been much of a problem. Jekyll Island’s last master plan in 1996 found that 108 acres remained open to new construction.

No new acreage was used in Jekyll Island’s recent $50 million tourism makeover that included a new convention center and beachside park, with plans for two convention hotels and a retail village to soon follow. All of those amenities are being built on previously developed land where old construction was razed. In fact, Jekyll Island has cleared little undeveloped land for construction since its last homes and golf courses were built in the 1970s.

Rep. Alex Atwood, a Republican from neighboring Brunswick, sits on the Legislature’s oversight committee for Jekyll Island and said he’s heard from residents across the state concerned about the island’s future. Atwood said he’s open to setting a fixed acreage for future development, but insists the law must continue to state clearly that most of Jekyll Island is to remain unspoiled.

“Most folks are like me, they don’t want to see a lot of acreage increasing for developable land,” Atwood said. “I want to keep the vast majority of that precious jewel that we have, that one little entity in the coast of Georgia, protected and undeveloped.”

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soapy_725 09/23/13 - 06:12 am
Money and more money creates a new moral conservatism.

Money and more money creates a new moral conservatism.

gaflyboy 09/23/13 - 07:30 am
Hope the critics stay on this.

Jekyll has always been one of my favorite places to visit. There is just enough there to be comfortable, without spoiling your walk under the moss covered oaks and the charm of the historic buildings. The last time I heard about this push, developers wanted to take the small airport on the back side. This would be a huge loss as well.

What concerns me most is that Jekyll will go the way of other formerly great beach vacation spots, where you can no longer see the water past the high rise hotels.

dahreese 09/23/13 - 10:33 am
The Jekyll Island Authority

The Jekyll Island Authority isn't interested in doing what is best for Jekyll Island.

Rather the Authority is interested in developing the island to the hilt for the benefit of special friends.

As to the marsh, it is exactly that, marsh.

Marsh serves the purpose of filtering water and providing feeding grounds for costal wildlife and in no way can/should it be included as a part of the total island's developmental capability.

In spite of what the Authority says, the island has already exceeded its developmental limit and it's apparent from the comment of Rep. Atwood that the state legislature will vote for further development.

Leave Jekyll Island alone.

TrulyWorried 09/23/13 - 11:54 am
Jekyll Island

I sincerely hope that there will be enough sensible people on the Authority that realize what a treasure this island is and should be left alone. The beauty of nature and the environment for its creatures is shrinking much too much. It cannot be replaced. Please keep what we still have as it is - future generations will want to enjoy God's creation just as much!

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 09/23/13 - 01:10 pm

The printed story in today's Chronicle contains a paragraph that was omitted from the story as edited above. I found it interesting. Here's the omitted paragraph:

Still, Jekyll Island officials are having trouble winning over critics. That's largely because the draft plan calculates the island’s overall size as 5,530 acres – a whopping 31 percent larger than it was under the last master plan at 4,226 acres. The new plan measures Jekyll’s outer boundary using a high-tide mark 1.7 feet lower than the one used in 1996.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Hold the presses! The global warmists have been telling us for years that sea level has been rising due to ice caps and glaciers melting all over the world. They told us that small islands where people live will be submerged. Now here these Jekyll Island "officials" are telling us that sea level on Jekyll Island is dropping. Which one do you believe?

dahreese 09/23/13 - 05:53 pm
Thanks, Little Lamb. We can

Thanks, Little Lamb.

We can bet there will be lobbying by the Authority to bypass all impediments to their grand designs.

If the Authority wants to care for the island, let the Authority stop unneeded, unnecessary development.

And if the AC is truly interested in the protection of the island, here's a good chance for an opposing editorial on a topic unrelated to Obama, and terroristic Muslims.

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