Originally created 10/13/03

Georgia's mini-island mansions bring environmental heat to waterfront development



SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Surrounded by salt marshes and linked to land by a 1,000-foot concrete bridge, the 8-acre miniature island of Long Point Hammock is a place where wildlife collides with luxury living.

Owls hoot from tall pines, egrets soar over marsh grasses and dolphins play at the water's edge. And overlooking it all is Bonneau and Jennifer Ansley's new plantation-style manor - three stories of replica Savannah-gray brick, white columns and sweeping porches with waterfront views.

"It's cool, if you can do it right," says Bonneau Ansley, a developer who squeezed his 7,300-square-foot house inside a ring of oak trees on his 1-acre lot. "If you want a lot out here, it's $1 million for an acre. And we're talking just the dirt."

About 1,200 of these mini-islands, called hammocks, dot the Georgia coastal marshes between the mainland and larger barrier islands. Most are only 1 to 10 acres, but their spectacular views and restricted access have attracted wealthy buyers who build mansions on small lots.

With 10 of Georgia's 14 barrier islands protected from development by the state or federal governments, hammocks represent some of the last real estate available on the water. About 60 percent of hammocks are privately owned, and environmentalists say their development threatens to pollute the marshes and destroy habitat for animals that thrive there.

"One of the reasons there's so much biodiversity on these hammocks is because we have built out our mainland and this is where these species have gone for refuge," says Patty McIntosh of the Georgia Conservancy. "What happens when we keep pushing them out?"

Though it's unclear how many mini-island mansions have been built, their popularity boomed in the 1990s.

The state has granted 35 permits to build bridges to hammocks in the past decade, out of a total of 47 since permit requirements began in 1973. The Department of Natural Resources says 112 privately owned hammocks have bridges or causeways to the mainland.

A shrinking supply of waterfront land has drawn wealthy homeowners to the small marsh islands. Movie stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez this year bought two homes - including a 10,000-square-foot mansion - on Hampton Island, which at 2,300 acres is much larger than most hammocks.

Many of the mini-islands are too far from land to attract homebuilders, accounting in part for the steep prices.

Savannah real estate agent Wiley Wasden has a .88-acre hammock lot near the Ansley's home listed for $960,000. He hasn't sold it after six months, but says he's confident someone will meet his price. Otherwise, buyers wanting to build on the water must purchase existing homes and bulldoze them.

And prices may go up even more if the state enacts new restrictions on building and developing the mini-islands.

Georgia's Board of Natural Resources later this month is scheduled to consider new hammock safeguards recommended by a committee of scientists, environmentalists and developers. One proposal would ban the bridging of some hammocks under 15 acres, depending on their proximity to land and the amount of marsh affected.

Mini-island homeowners insist their mansions can coexist with nature. Ansley says he built his home with three-stories rather than two to save space for the live oaks in his yard. He says he doesn't fertilize his lawn for fear of pollutants washing into the marsh.

"I did the minimal landscaping I could. ... "I wouldn't call myself a tree-hugger, but the trees are what make the lot valuable."

Dr. Bill Dascombe, a plastic surgeon, bought the 1.3-acre lot next to the Ansleys about 10 months ago. All he's put there so far is a bench overlooking the marsh.

Dascombe owns a home nearby and often jogs across the bridge near sunset and watches the fading light make the tall marsh grasses glow multiple hues of green.

Dascombe says he'd like to build a house, but admits he's hesitant. Right now he's content to come on weekends and pitch a tent, camping beneath the oaks and stars and the Ansleys' big house next door.

"I've almost thought, golly, this should be a park," Dascombe says. "I feel like I'm a visitor to the land, not an owner. It's home to birds, there's a stream right beside me that's home to crabs and fish. I'm one of many visitors that need to share this land."