Jekyll’s south end saved from development

By Dan Chapman | Friday, April 20, 2007, 10:19 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The South end of Jekyll Island will be saved for future generations of school kids, bird watchers, soccer players, turtle lovers and tourists after House and Senate legislators compromised over the island’s development.

After a long, odd day of discussions private and public, both chambers unanimously approved compromise legislation (HB 214) to extend the lease of the island’s governing body and, possibly, its residents for an additional 40 years.

It almost didn’t happen. Legislative brinkmanship, pitting developers and their legislative supporters against preservationists and theirs, almost killed the bill. It took three conference committee meetings — two run by lobbyists seated around an oblong-shaped table — to postpone a decision over who may live on Jekyll.

Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) held tough until 8:17 p.m., insisting throughout the day that he wouldn’t compromise on a cap for the number of residences. He’d already prevailed on keeping condos and ritzy homes from replacing the South end’s 4-H Center, soccer complex and other undeveloped property.

In the end, though, Chapman compromised. Under intense pressure from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and, indirectly, from Gov. Sonny Perdue, Chapman pronounced himself satisfied and said, “We have a deal.”
Later, he added: “We are victorious because we prevented the arbitrary sale of any land, created an important oversight committee and protected the South end so that untold generations can enjoy that natural resource.”

Developers, represented by lobbyists Joe Tanner and Arthur “Skin” Edge IV, also voiced satisfaction, particularly because they wore Chapman down over the cap on residences. And, with property leases likely to run until 2089, builders can now more readily borrow from banks for an as much as $3 billion in condos, hotels, million-dollar homes and shops. Back and forth, all afternoon long, legislators traipsed from chamber to chamber seeking compromise on one of the session’s more contested bills. Knots of lobbyists and legislators filled third-floor corners in the Capitol.

Rep. Terry Barnard (R-Glennville), who carried the bill in the House, about wore out his loafers trying, unsuccessfully, to close a deal before conferees gathered in a small, courtroom-like chamber on the first floor.

Chapman was an army of one against the five other conferees appointed by House and Senate leaders who prefer more, not less, development on Jekyll. “I’m willing to give in on the South end, but if you insist on (limiting) the number of residents, we don’t have a deal,” Barnard inveighed during the 6 p.m conference committee gathering. “We have compromised to the limit.” Seventy-five minutes later, they were back in air-less Room 122. Frank Mirasola, a Jekyll resident, was shocked to see Tanner and Edge seated across from Chapman and Sen. Ross Tolleson (R-Perry) attempting to hash out a compromise.
“I didn’t believe what I was seeing,” Mirasola said. “Joe Tanner was running the meeting and the legislators were just sitting there. That was surreal.”

Tanner said he was asked by Tolleson to help mediate a compromise. Later, after an aide to Tolleson nudged him, Tanner denied Tolleson asked for his help. “As far as sitting down with citizens, lobbyists, senators, environmental groups — I did that on more than one occasion as director of DNR,” said Tanner, who served 18 years as head of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “I suspect other people have done the same thing."

And they have, of course, but rarely so publicly. Sausage-making, like they say, ain’t pretty.
Back in Room 122, Chapman was getting nervous.

“I just hope they’re not voting on my bill while I’m sitting here,” he said before hurrying to the elevator. They weren’t. But the paranoia was palpable.

Perdue, outside catching a breath of fresh air, was asked about Chapman’s threat to kill the Jekyll bill if he didn’t get his way. “Bless his heart,” the governor sarcastically said, “he’s quite a team player.”

It was back to Room 122. But this time, at 7:43 p.m., the lobbyists for the Reynolds Group, keen to put a fancy hotel and other upscale housing on Jekyll, were joined at the table by lobbyists for the Georgia Wildlife Federation and the Georgia Conservation Voters.

A half hour later, compromise was reached. The Jekyll Island Authority, through its master planning process, will take a year to determine a suitable cap on residences. Chapman and other legislators will then weigh in. At first Chapman considered it odd that lobbyists were doing his colleagues bidding. But he changed his mind. “Sometimes it’s very helpful,” Chapman said. The House voted at 9:19 to approve HB 214. The Senate followed suit more than two hours later. “The legislative process,” said Mirasola, “is a magical thing.”