Originally created 02/23/01

Coast would benefit from Senate's budget



ATLANTA - The twin causes of land conservation and historic preservation in coastal Georgia are getting a boost in the state Senate.

The midyear budget adopted by senators Thursday includes $3.5 million in bonds to finance state acquisition of undeveloped land on Sapelo Island and $175,000 to complete improvements at Fort King George Historic Site in Darien.

In another nod toward the Coastal Empire, the Senate also added $250,000 to help underwrite an environmental study of the lower Savannah River.

The midyear budget likely will be headed next to a conference committee to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the spending plan.

The $3.5 million for land acquisition was part of Gov. Roy Barnes' original midyear request, but the House cut the funding because the proposal lacked specifics. When Senate budget writers put the money back into the spending plan, they added language clarifying that the funds would be for "barrier island land preservation."

The state already owns most of 17,950-acre Sapelo Island, including the ferries that transport residents and visitors to and from the mainland. The only residential community on the island is the approximately 400-acre Hog Hammock, which is home primarily to descendants of black slaves who lived on the island.

The Department of Natural Resources has begun negotiations to buy several properties that otherwise could be subject to development, said DNR Commissioner Lonice Barrett. He would not reveal the sites because the talks are ongoing.

"We've got to do everything we can to protect as much of the barrier islands and marshes as possible," he said. "This is a window of opportunity we're trying to take advantage of."

Mr. Barrett said about 7,500 people take public tours of Sapelo each year, far fewer than visit Cumberland Island. Sapelo is Georgia's fourth-largest barrier island, behind Cumberland, St. Simons and Ossabaw.

The $175,000 the Senate added to the midyear budget for Fort King George would be used to finish building a replica officers' quarters and hospital at the old British fort, which was built in 1721 and rediscovered in 1935.

The two projects were started in 1989 but discontinued five years ago, said Sen. Peg Blitch, D-Homerville, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of the DNR's portion of the budget.

The state put up $147,000 last year to build an enlisted soldiers' barracks, which was dedicated in the fall. The fort also includes a museum, superintendents' residence and blockhouse.

Last year, Fort King George was visited by more than 10,000 people.

The $250,000 for the study of the lower Savannah River represents one-fourth of what the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce requested from the state to help develop a sophisticated computer model of the environmental effects of municipal and industrial sewage discharges into the Savannah harbor.

The Georgia Ports Authority wants to deepen the channel from 42 feet to as much as 48 feet to better accommodate ship traffic. As part of the approval process for that project, the authority has been studying the effects deepening could have on levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.