Let’s Uphold State Law Limiting Development of Jekyll Island!

Georgia State law says that not more than 35% of the land area of Jekyll Island that lies above water at mean high tide may be developed.

The meaning of that legislation seems self-evident, yet Jekyll Island Authority is claiming that the law defines tidal marsh can be counted as part of Jekyll’s “land area.”  Defining marsh as land allows the JIA to artificially increase Jekyll’s size by 1726 acres and grow the island to 5,543 acres.

A committee tasked with an official review the definitions of “developed” and “undeveloped” land in the 1996 Jekyll Island Master Plan concluded that marsh cannot be counted as land and that Jekyll Island is actually 3,817 acres large and 38.6% developed.

The Master Plan committee, which includes representatives from the DNR, University of Georgia, Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, Georgia Conservancy and JIA, based its no marsh” recommendation upon legislative history, current state law, and scientific understanding of what is and is not marsh.

The JIA has based its position on the belief that the 1971 law limiting development to a percentage of Jekyll’s land area intended to include salt marsh that is above water at mean high tide as part of that “land area.”

The JIA’s claim that marsh can be counted as land must be rejected, and here’s why:

The 1970 Coastal Marshlands Protection Act (CMPA) provides the state’s official definition of marsh. Using vegetation and soil types found in a marsh environment, the CMPA clearly distinguishes marsh from land and defines the boundary where these two distinct physical features meet. For the CMPA, marsh is definitely not land.

The author of the 1971 law restricting development of Jekyll Island, State Rep. Michael J. Egan, also made clear the fact that tidal marsh was not to be included in the 65/35 mix. He twice told the JIA, in writing, that the legislation he wrote pertained to the high ground only and did not include marsh.

Federal agencies, including U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, EPA, and the Army Corps of Engineers, distinguish marsh from land, and so does the scientific community.

Common sense, too, says that marsh is not land. Standard dictionary definitions say so as well:     

Marsh - noun - An area of soft, wet, low-lying land, characterized by grassy vegetation and often forming a transition zone between water and land.

Land - noun - The part of the earth's surface that is not covered by water, as opposed to the sea or the air.

And, there’s more…..

The JIA has hijacked the Master Plan public input process by failing to submit the 65/35 report to the Master Plan Steering Committee for review. Instead of vetting the report’s “land area” recommendation, the JIA decided, behind closed doors, to condemn it and turn to the State Attorney General for support of its own marsh = land position.  Claiming “attorney-client privilege,” the JIA has refused to make public the full record of what was sent to the AG’s office. So much for transparency and openness….

The JIA says it will not build anything in the 1,000+ acres of marsh it hopes to count as part of Jekyll’s land area. Well, nobody expects the JIA to build in the marsh, but the fact is that for every 100 acres of marsh that is mis-defined as ‘land,’ 35 acres of upland (actual land) become eligible for development.

The JIA claims it does not have any “plans” for the hundreds of acres that would become subject to development if the island is deemed to be 5,543 acres in size rather than 3,817. It may be true that are no “plans” now, but what about the future? What about the long-term development plan the JIA endorsed just 4 years ago, which called for a 60% increase in Jekyll’s built environment?  While IPJI believes a “build out” of that proportion would alter Jekyll Island’s character for the worse, we do support responsible redevelopment of Jekyll Island’s lodgings, amenities and facilities over the long-term and believe that goal can be achieved within the framework of the 65/35 law.

Concerned citizens and conservation organizations across the state are now urging Attorney General Sam Olens to recognize the truth behind the committee’s “land area” recommendation, which is that tidal marsh is exempt from the 65/35 formula. Among the powerful letters sent to AG Olens urging him to uphold the 65/35 law is one written by GreenLaw Senior Attorney Steven D. Caley, which we encourage everyone to read.

If you would like to express your opinion on this important issue to Attorney General Olens, he may be contacted at solens@law.ga.gov .

IPJI Note: GreenLaw is a Georgia-based nonprofit (501-C3) law firm serving environmental and community organizations. It is supported by individuals, companies, law firms and foundations from across Georgia. Their Executive Director, Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, is a long-time Jekyll advocate. As a representative in the Georgia Assembly, she was a prominent figure in the battle waged by IPJI and other organizations to prevent the 4-H Center and soccer complex on Jekyll’s south end from being replaced by estate homes and boutique hotels. 

As can be seen from the post on GreenLaw’s website, the folks there are committed to the protection of Jekyll Island State Park as one of Georgia’s great natural treasures.  The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island is extremely fortunate to have GreenLaw’s dedicated professionals working with us to uphold the 65/35 law and to help secure  bright future for Jekyll Island State Park.

Like all nonprofits, GreenLaw cannot continue its work without financial support. Please consider making a donation to GreenLaw on behalf of their service to Jekyll Island State Park.