Originally created 01/19/01

Proposal for river criticized



Georgians among those who claim St. Marys plan fails to address pollution concerns adequatelyMorris News ServiceYULEE, Ga. - Some Georgia residents Tuesday spoke against a plan Tuesday to protect the St. Marys River from increasing development, claiming it does not adequately protect the water from pollution.

Nine Georgians were among the more than 50 people who attended a public hearing called by the St. Marys River Management Committee to review the newest version of its river-management plan.

The plan recommends elected officials in Georgia and Florida pass compatible laws to manage development, recreation, fishing and wastewater discharge from surrounding towns. The plan addresses water quality, groundwater, floodplains, natural systems, public use, economic development and government policy.

While many people attending the meeting liked the plan's strategies for preserving water quality, regulating development and formulating a media educational campaign, some said it fell short of its most important mission - to protect the waterway.

Alan Bailey, a resident of Savannah whose family owns land along the river, and Fernandina Beach, Fla., resident Ray Hetchka said the committee needs to put more water-quality control into the plan. Both said they favor an earlier version, which more heavily regulated water quality.

"The committee altered the December report to make it more palatable, but science is science and truth is truth and they can't change that," Mr. Hetchka said.

Mr. Bailey said any final plan needs to address the current contamination along the St. Marys River.

"There is bacteria there that indicates sewage is present," he said.

Mr. Bailey said the plan won't get his endorsement unless it is reviewed and approved by a scientific expert on water quality.

George Varn, one of the 22 committee members who drafted the 100-page plan, said he expected controversy because the proposals are important to so many people.

He said approximately 900 people live along the St. Marys River and that the plan writers want to take their opinions into account.

Mr. Varn said the committee sent out 1,600 meeting notices to property owners and to members of various nature groups.

"Comments are critical. The whole point of doing this community-based is to get the support. We've got to have a plan that works, but it has to be amenable to the community," Varn said.

Because it expect diverse feedback, Mr. Varn said, the committee hired Will Murray, a professional facilitator from Conservation Impact in Boulder, Colo., to lead the meeting, and another one set for 7 p.m. Jan. 23 the Historic Train Depot in Folkston, Ga.

Mr. Varn said Panidon Systems Inc., the firm hired by the committee to write the plan, will incorporate public comments into the final version. Once the plan is complete, the committee will seek approval from the county commissions in Nassau, Charlton, Baker and Camden counties. Mr. Varn said he expects some of the plan's strategies could go into effect by next summer.

If approved, the plan will assure the river, which winds from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Atlantic Ocean, remains healthy, said Kraig McLane, assistant director with the office of policy and planning for the St. Johns River Management District.

The St. Marys River is one of the waterways included in the 19-county St. Johns River Management District, and is the only interstate river in the district, Ms. McLane said.

Committee members said they are optimistic the plan will be accepted by the public.