Jekyll oversight chair supports change to park law
By RUSS BYNUM
Published: October 17, 2013
JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. — A major change to the state law that has limited development on Jekyll Island for 42 years should win approval by Georgia legislators next year thanks to broad support from conservationists and the state park's managers, the state senator in charge of oversight for Jekyll Island said Thursday.
Since 1971, the state-owned beach getaway off the Georgia coast has been governed by a law mandating that no more than 35 percent of the island's total land area can be used for hotels, golf courses and other amenities. But a recent debate over how best to measure the island's acreage, particularly regarding whether to count marsh as land, raised questions about whether development here had already reached its legal limit.
Now the Jekyll Island Authority, which governs the state park, wants to ask the state Legislature next year to amend the law to replace the percentage of developable land on the island with a fixed acreage that total construction can't exceed. The Georgia Conservancy and other conservationists say it's a change that makes sense.
"We've got so many people on board with this plan and so many people have worked together, I don't think the General Assembly is going to be a problem," Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, who chairs the Jekyll Island Legislative Oversight Committee, said after a meeting on the island Thursday. "I really feel good about this plan."
The compromise came after months of debate on a new master plan to guide Jekyll Island's future. The last such plan was adopted 17 years ago.
A draft of that plan calculates the island's overall size as 5,530 acres — a whopping 31 percent larger than it was under the last master plan at 4,226 acres. That's because the new plan measures Jekyll Island's outer boundary using a high-tide mark that's lower than the one used the 1996.
Concerned that ballooning the island's acreage would vastly increase the amount of land open to construction, conservationists argued that marsh should be excluded from the land area altogether. That would shrink Jekyll Island's overall size to a point where existing developed acres would have exceeded the 35-percent law. Attorney General Sam Olens suggested in legal opinion that perhaps the Legislature should just rewrite the law.
Wealthy northern industrialists owned Jekyll Island and used it as a secluded winter getaway until 1947, when Georgia officials bought it for use as a state park. Since 1971, the guiding policy ensuring most of its beaches, salt marshes and forests remain unspoiled has been the law mandating 65 percent of the island remain undisturbed.
Jekyll Island's last master plan 1996 found that 108 acres remained open to new construction. No new acreage was used in the island's recent $50 million tourism makeover, which built a new convention center and beachside park on a site where old construction was bulldozed.
The compromise sought in the Jekyll Island Authority's new plan asks for a law limiting total development to 1,675 acres. Most of that acreage has already been used, and only 66 acres would remain open for future projects. New commercial development would be restricted to an even smaller portion, just 20 acres.
"We had some pretty strong views that were on a collision course," said Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy and a former Georgia lieutenant governor. "The fixed acreage approach is a more certain approach, and I think it will give more confidence to people about where Jekyll Island is going."
Jekyll Island officials expect final approval of the new master plan in November. Then it will be up to the state House and Senate to change the law after lawmakers reconvene in January.
There's still some question about what would happen if the Jekyll Island Authority's new plan increases the island's acreage and the Legislature then fails to change the law. Under the current 35-percent rule, the larger land area would boost the amount of land open to construction on Jekyll Island to 326 acres. That's five times the acreage island officials say they need.
Jekyll Island spokesman Eric Garvey said Thursday the park's governing board would abide by the fixed acreage regardless of whether legislators approve it. Howard said the law must change for the compromise to work, and he's confident that will happen next year.
David Egan, an island resident and co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, said he's still somewhat concerned.
"You don't want to try to predict what the General Assembly will do," Egan said. "I'll be a lot happier when the governor signs the bill."