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Jekyll Island dispute
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Moderated by Tom Sabulis
May 9, 2013

A dispute over the “land” that can be developed on Jekyll Island has reached the attorney general’s office. A task force recently said no marshland should be included in tallying the island’s land mass, a recommendation that could restrict future hotels and condos. Those who run the state park dispute that ruling, while an environmentalist fears that easing restrictions will put sensitive marshes in danger.
Tom Sabulis

Marsh or not, Jekyll’s future may ride on it
By David Kyler

Amid the ongoing update of the Jekyll Island master plan, debate has arisen over the intent of a 1971 law restricting development to no more than 35 percent of Jekyll Island’s land area above mean high tide (MHT). The controversy is not whether MHT should be used as the legal standard, but whether some 1,700 acres of Jekyll’s tidal marsh above MHT legally qualify as “land.”

A task force appointed by the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) said “no.” But the JIA now says “yes,” and is seeking the attorney general’s support.

No one asserts that the JIA intends to build within the marsh. But many are concerned about the consequences — both on Jekyll and beyond — of an interpretation of the 65/35 law that would, in effect, make the island larger than its actual land area.

If Jekyll is artificially expanded by 1,700 acres, 35 percent of that sizable area, or nearly 600 additional acres, would become eligible for development. Those acres would be carved out of the 65 percent of upland now conserved for public recreational use.

Although the 65/35 law does not define “land,” Georgia’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970 is quite specific in distinguishing between uplands and marshes. Under that law, marshes are neither “land” nor eligible for active use or development, except for strictly limited purposes.

Under other Georgia law, tidal marshes and other “waters of the state” must be protected by a natural upland buffer at least 25 feet wide to help reduce pollution from upland activities.

If all “areas” above MHT become part of Jekyll’s “land,” it is likely that the buffer could be shifted into the marsh, even though marsh is not land by legal definition. If that happened, buffer protection would be eliminated.

Similarly, incorrectly equating marsh with land could weaken the Marsh Act by providing legal grounds for developers along the coast to win comparable exemptions.

In light of such considerations, it is troubling that the JIA is insisting that tidal marsh be included in Jekyll’s calculated upland area used to set development limits.

The JIA rationalizes that prior master plans counted marsh as land. Those plans are deeply flawed on several counts, including failure to properly apply the 65/35 law, evoking the maxim that “there never was a mistake that got better by repeating.”

Georgia’s marshes are extremely important to the citizens of our state and vital to the quality of life on Georgia’s coast. Based on extensive scientific studies, Georgia’s vast tidal marsh generates an annual value of more than $6 billion in public benefits, including fish, shellfish, eco-tourism, water filtration and protection of property against storm damage.

To safeguard this important resource, it is essential that all legal controls are consistently interpreted and enforced.

Likewise, achieving responsible redevelopment of Jekyll Island depends on undeviating application of legally consistent, scientifically verified distinctions between upland and marshes.

Calling tidal marsh above mean high tide on Jekyll “land” does not make it so.

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast in St. Simons Island.

Development limited to existing footprint
By Eric Garvey

It recently has been asserted that the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) wants to change the definition of marshland. This simply is not true. The reality is the JIA has no “authority” when it comes to the question, “What is marshland?” That power lies with the state’s lawmakers. As far as the JIA is concerned, to build in the ecologically vital marshland is completely out of the question.

The underlying issue is really about the limitations of development on Jekyll Island. As sure as high tide follows low, this discussion unfailingly provokes a public outcry whose impassioned plea is clear: Do not let Jekyll Island become the next (fill-in-the-blank overdeveloped beach destination).

We wholeheartedly agree. The JIA has been busy with revitalization intended to protect the island’s unique character. All the new commercial development you hear about is occurring within existing footprints and is not adding to the amount of “developed” land. On Jekyll Island, “developed” basically means any land not in its original, natural state, and includes bike paths, historic sites, picnic areas and golf courses. In all, this “developed” land must be kept to no more than just 35 percent of the island’s total land area above “mean high tide,” as defined in the 1971 law establishing the 35-percent limitation on development.

Significant acreage of marshland in and around Jekyll Island is above “mean high tide” and has always been counted as part of the island’s total land area. But it is not to be built on. In the current Jekyll Island master plan, this marshland is delineated as environmentally sensitive. It is protected under the Jekyll Island conservation plan and also regulated under Georgia’s Coastal Marshland Protection Act. No one is considering anything other than protecting this invaluable natural resource. Period.

Under the guidance of the current Jekyll Island master plan, a long-downward trend in visitation has been reversed through careful stewardship. Accomplishments include creation of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center; enactment of a lighting ordinance to protect sea turtle nesting habitat; formation of a comprehensive conservation plan; establishment of design guidelines limiting building height; development of a “certified-green” convention center; re-creation of the beachfront park, and the addition and rehabilitation of more than 10 miles of bike trails. As new hotels open, each must receive certification for energy conservation and sustainability. And each will be located within existing developed footprints.

The JIA is demonstrating its commitment to a thoughtful vision for the future through a new master plan that carries forward the firm line on limited development.

I encourage you to visit and see if you agree we are on the right track. And as you marvel at the periwinkle snails clinging to the spartina marsh grass, gaze across the vast Marshes of Glynn to the setting sun and know that Jekyll Island, under the stewardship of the Jekyll Island Authority, will remain a special place — the nearest faraway place — for you, your children and their children.

Eric Garvey is chief communications officer for the Jekyll Island Authority.