Jekyll Authority should be honest
Athens Banner Herald
Leon Galis
May 10, 20113

Just when you think the dust has settled on coastal Georgia’s Jekyll Island, another scuffle breaks out. State law puts 65 percent of the island off limits to development. The Jekyll Island Authority is embroiled in an argument over that with a task force it appointed as part of its update of the island’s master plan. The task force recommended one way of calculating the 65-percent-to-35-percent ratio, and the authority favors a more generous way.

The authority has referred the dispute to the state attorney general’s office for a Solomonic resolution.

Meanwhile, the authority’s detractors are accusing it of being in the grip of development “insanity,” and the authority is returning the favor, saying that one of the task force members has “an exclusive anti-development agenda and (is) only concerned with that agenda, even if it means manipulating the way the island is measured and throwing out all kinds of misinformation.” I’ve already seen this movie. Where’s Rodney King when we need him?

It’s easy to say what’s at issue here. The authority’s enabling statute provides that it “is empowered to … improve … not more than 35 percent of the land area of Jekyll Island which lies above water at mean high tide … .” The task force understands the land area lying above mean high tide to exclude the island’s tidal marshes. The authority disputes that. If the task force’s view prevails, Jekyll Island has maxed out its development potential. If the authority’s view prevails, it hasn’t — not because the marshes would be available for development, but because they’ll be included in the total acreage on which the 65-35 ratio is calculated.

Many sections of the Georgia code begin with definitions of key terms. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m assuming that terms not so defined are to be understood in their ordinary sense. The authority’s problem is that the word “land” isn’t defined in its enabling statute, leaving it, if I have this right, to be understood in its ordinary sense. It’s a reasonable non-lawyerly guess that it was left undefined because when the relevant section of the law was amended in 1953, “land area lying above mean high tide” was taken to mean the same thing as the language it replaced — “highland portion” — which in its ordinary sense unambiguously excludes tidal marshes.

But suppose the attorney general green-lights the authority to develop additional acreage. Is it only development “insanity” that would make them rejoice in that outcome? Maybe, but I can think of at least two sane reasons for the authority to be nervous about freezing the island’s development potential.

First, there’s an obscure provision of the authority’s enabling statute that says, “It shall be the duty of the authority to prescribe rules and regulations for the operation of each project or combination of projects constructed under this part, including rules and regulations to ensure maximum use or occupancy of each such project.”

Now while the island’s stunning new convention center seems to be doing splendidly, the authority has no way of knowing what competitive environment it’ll face years hence in meeting its legal mandate “to ensure maximum use” of the building. Even absent any urgent need for more lodging, say, right now, maybe simple prudence recommends retaining the flexibility to add that capacity down the road if necessary.

Second, however the island is sliced and diced, if the climate scientists are right, the 65-35 ratio is going to be calculated on a gradually shrinking amount of total acreage. So the authority might well prefer heading into that inevitable contraction from a larger, rather than a smaller, land base.

If anything like this is agitating the authority, it’s utterly mystifying why they don’t just say so instead of regressing to the bad old days when they and their critics were too busy demonizing each other to work together for the benefit of Jekyll Island’s owners, the people of Georgia.

Another obscure section of the authority’s enabling statute suggests a way for it and its task force to break out of their clinch. It says, “This part, being necessary for the welfare of the state and its inhabitants, shall be liberally construed to effect the purposes hereof.”

Maybe it’s too late, but I’d like to think that the spirit of this provision points a constructive way forward.

• Leon Galis, a retiree living in Athens, writes occasionally for the editorial page.