Development of Jekyll Island: The Law and the Facts

The so-called 65/35 law (April, 1971), which mandates that the Jekyll Island Authority has “no power to improve, lease, or sell…65 percent of the land area of Jekyll Island which lies above water at mean high tide,” is arguably the most important piece of Jekyll legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly. That law, which is approaching its 40th anniversary, has helped to preserve what the Jekyll Island Master Plan describes as the island’s principal attraction, namely “the accessibility it provides to an unspoiled microcosm of the coastal environment.”

While there is virtually unanimous support for maintaining the 65/35 law, the law cannot be enforced without a clear definition of what constitutes “undeveloped” land. If, for example, a sizable tract of Jekyll land were to be developed—meaning engineered by man, improved or otherwise removed from its natural condition—but happened to be defined by the Jekyll Island Authority as “undeveloped,” then  the 35% cap on development could, in fact, be violated without the law appearing to have been defied.  This is exactly what seems to have happened in the case of Jekyll’s golf courses.

The beds of the lakes and ponds which dot Jekyll’s golf courses were dug for the purpose of providing fill dirt to contour the fairways, elevate the greens and to help with drainage. [To see maps depicting changes in land use, click here]. A number of these man-made water bodies also serve as hazards (penalty stroke areas) and are therefore integral parts of the golf courses’ design. [To see pictures of water hazard's on Jekyll's golf courses, click here.]

In total, there are 65 acres of golf course lakes and ponds, all of which are classified as “undeveloped” land by the Jekyll Island Authority [click here, to see chart of classifications. Note: You will need to scroll across the page to see the chart].

Currently, the JIA maintains that there are still 55 acres that could be developed without violating the 65/35 law. 

If the engineered land within the golf course complex is counted as “developed,” as should be the case, the JIA does not have even one, let alone 55, acres eligible for “improvement” because the 65% cap on development has already been surpassed.

Two years ago, Senator Jeff Chapman introduced a bill that would have included as “developed” the golf course areas described above, along with other acreage—such as Jekyll’s landfill and unpaved roads—classified by the JIA as “undeveloped,” but the bill never made it out of Senator Chip Pearson’s Economic Development Committee, to which it was sent by Lt. Governor Casey Cagle. When Chapman tried to reintroduce the bill on the Senate floor as an attachment to another piece of legislation, Cagle denied him this opportunity. [To read a newspaper account of this, click here.]

The JIA board continues to express support for the 65/35 law but has said that it has no intention of changing its definition of “developed and “undeveloped” land. Clearly, a more rational classification of land use on Jekyll Island is needed to preserve the integrity of the 65/35 law.