Atlanta Journal - Constitution


Jekyll giveaway robs our state jewel

By Babs McDonald
October 30, 2009

Ken Burns’ PBS series, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” introduced national park history to Americans. The establishment of national parks in the early 20th century was followed by the establishment of state parks. State parks, like national parks, preserve unique and special natural, historical and cultural resources.

As I watched the national parks series, I was reminded of the resemblance between national and state parks. Unfortunately for Georgia, the resemblance goes even further.
The first national parks were threatened by private developers, who fought public access so they could reap a profit from national treasures. This happened repeatedly, as the public’s love for these special lands grew. The major trail into the Grand Canyon, for example, was controlled by one man, who charged an exorbitant fee not just for entry, but for drinking water as well. The day this monopoly was ended was hailed as a great day for democracy in America.

In Georgia, public access to one of our state treasures is being similarly threatened. The privatization of public land is, in our case, being facilitated by the government entity charged with protecting the park.

Jekyll Island State Park was created in 1948 as a great public beach park. A state park authority was created to manage the state park. The foresight of consultants, state park employees and state legislators ensured that 65 percent of Jekyll Island State Park remains undeveloped. Although 35 percent may be developed, Jekyll Island has not reached that limit. Not yet.

At a time when state officials are being called to engage cost-saving measures, including furloughing state teachers, the Jekyll Island State Park Authority (JIA) is conducting business as if the bottom line doesn’t matter.

Take, for example, the financial terms of an agreement signed between the JIA and private developer Linger Longer Communities (LLC). These terms are now being translated into contracts for projects to build the Jekyll town center, a development meant to “revitalize” the state park.

In an as yet unexplained move, the JIA accepted contractual terms from LLC that it had previously rejected as not being a good deal for the people of Georgia. As a result, LLC will make a 220 percent profit from the sale of beachfront time shares and condominiums on land owned by the citizens of Georgia, even after paying costs for development and marketing.

The time shares and condos to be built on our land, to be sold to those who can afford them, will become private oceanfront property. This will prohibit most citizens from accessing a portion of their own state park.

The people of Georgia, moreover, are fronting $50 million to provide infrastructure for LLC’s development in the form of state general obligation bonds. In addition, the JIA is paying LLC $1.3 million, just to be its private partner.

The JIA’s share of gross sales for the town center’s time-share project is just 1 percent. Real estate appraisal research dealing with the value added to a property by its location indicates that oceanfront land contributes 54 percent of the market value. A reasonable profit-sharing arrangement would reflect the true value of the public’s contribution to the sales value of the time shares, which is clearly more than 1 percent.

The JIA has claimed that anything more than a 1 percent share of gross sales for the public partner would be punitive and make the project unacceptable for LLC. If LLC believes that a 99 to 1 split in gross sales is fair and reasonable, then a fiscally responsible JIA should be shopping around for a new private partner.

Instead, the JIA persists in defending an indefensible contract and behaving as if the public has no right to question a questionable deal involving its own land.

The deal given to LLC by the JIA represents a betrayal of public trust and a betrayal of the idea of public land. Our state park is being traded away for a penny on the dollar, and being privatized to boot.

The Jekyll situation is reminiscent of what almost happened in early national parks, when private interests fought to control and develop these treasures for their own profit instead of the public good.

In Georgia, a state authority is assisting a private developer to do the same on Georgia’s jewel. Shame on the JIA. Jekyll Island is Georgia’s treasured state park. It has been one of Georgia’s best ideas since the late 1940s. We should not let it go.

Babs McDonald chairs the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island in Athens.

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