Fight over Jekyll hotel
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
September 19, 2013
Moderated By Tom Sabulis

Jekyll Island is a favorite getaway for Atlantans — and home to a dispute over development on the state-owned barrier island. Today, a coastal environmentalist criticizes approval of a 200-room hotel whose height, he says, will harm Jekyll’s natural beauty. A spokesman for the governing Jekyll Island Authority declined an invitation to write an op-ed in response but said the project adheres to building guidelines approved long ago. We include some previously published comments from the authority on the hotel’s positive impact.

Speeding island’s urbanization

By David Kyler

Among continuing disputes over the “revitalization” of Jekyll Island State Park is a mega-hotel that will degrade the island’s treasured ambiance and likely encourage further urban development.

Reaching some 67 feet in height, Jekyll’s beachfront Westin hotel will be the tallest structure on Georgia’s barrier islands, nearly double the height of anything allowed on Tybee Island and 50 percent taller than any beachfront building allowed on St. Simons and Sea Islands.

A 45-foot height limit was adopted by Glynn County to ensure no structures defile the tree tops of the renowned Golden Isles live oaks. However, the county has no authority over state-owned Jekyll Island.

In 2008, the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) adopted design guidelines that included a building height limit of up to 72 feet. It was rationalized on the basis of an isolated portion of the island’s highest structure – a tower atop the presidential suite at the historic Jekyll Club Hotel.

There are at least two reasons why JIA’s reasoning is flawed. First, a tower imposes a far less intrusive, monolithic effect than a warehouse-width building erected to the same elevation. Second, the historic hotel is on the back side of the island, nestled among mature trees that soften the visual effect of its scale.

In stark contrast, the Westin will stand on an oceanfront site having no large trees nearby, close to remnant dunes and active sea-turtle nests. Due to the Westin’s sheer size as well as its site, the hotel will impair the scenic quality of both the island’s entryway and the beach. Late in the day, the structure will cast a massive shadow over the beachfront, making the view look more like Miami Beach than the Golden Isles – damaging the island’s most valued asset: its natural, tranquil setting.

JIA has three more hotels waiting for redevelopment. If these are built to the limits of JIA’s permissive guidelines, Jekyll’s image will rapidly mutate from natural to urban.

Besides profoundly degrading the experience of Jekyll’s beach-going tourists, the Westin will pose a significant threat to sea-turtle nesting habitat. Lighting from beachfront structures is the single greatest threat to sea-turtle hatchling survival caused by shorefront development. And, according to biologists, artificial lighting problems grow exponentially with the height of shorefront buildings.

Past efforts to implement Jekyll lighting controls have not always been successful. Moreover, the Westin’s size and location will make enforcement of lighting ordinances extremely difficult.

The $200 average room rate predicted for the Westin also seems questionable in view of the affordability required in the founding legislation for the park. Cultivating an exclusive clientele is at odds with that mandate. If hotels now being planned follow this example, a trend toward less affordability will result, clashing with the public purpose of Jekyll Island State Park.

Decisions promoting such mammoth beachfront projects further conflict with the unique tranquility of the Jekyll experience. Concerned Georgians should urge JIA to reduce its building-height limitations.

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

By Tom Sabulis

The Westin Jekyll Island hotel was approved by the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) in November, in an attempt to revive tourism on the barrier island. Groundbreaking for the 200-room facility occurred in May. It will serve the adjacent and newly opened Jekyll Island Convention Center.

Here are some previously published comments from JIA staff and board members addressing the importance of the new $40 million project, which will be supported in part by the island’s tourist development fund.

— “It’s hard to overstate how important this is. The new convention center opened in May to rave reviews, but it’s critical that we have the new hotel just adjacent to it to really make it all work.” — Eric Garvey, Jekyll Island Authority spokesman, in an Associated Press story in November.

— “The beachfront Westin will play a significant role in attracting businesses and leisure guests from across the country to Jekyll Island and the coast of Georgia.” — Bob Krueger, chairman of the Jekyll Island Authority, said in a statement in November.

— “The Westin Jekyll Island is pivotal to the entire Beach Village development. It’s the perfect complement to the wonderful new convention center and the island’s relaxed and gracious ambiance. We are extremely proud to help write yet another new and exciting chapter in Jekyll Island’s rich and fabled history.” — Dave Curtis, managing partner of Jekyll Oceanfront Hotel LLC, upon groundbreaking for the Westin Hotel in May.

— “With the groundbreaking of the new Westin, we are seeing one more step toward completing our end goals of island revitalization. This is a thrilling day for all of us, and we have much to be excited about as we look to Jekyll’s future.” — Richard Royal, chairman Jekyll Island Authority, upon groundbreaking. (Royal replaced Krueger as chairman in December.)

— “The Westin Jekyll Island will be a catalyst that enables Jekyll Island revitalization to achieve its full potential. Westin Hotels and Resorts are marketed as havens of wellness and rejuvenation, which is exactly the right brand for Jekyll Island. Now that Westin construction is underway, the Jekyll Island Authority is much closer to realizing our goals of increased visitation and financial prosperity. This stunning new lodging facility will be a significant draw for Georgia’s Golden Isles.” — Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority, on in May.