A Capacity Study for Jekyll Island State Park Is Needed NOW!

To ensure Jekyll Island State Park maintains its unspoiled, peaceful and natural setting, a carrying capacity based upon visitor preferences and the impact of additional development on park resources and the visitor experience should be established.

The JIA, in its 2014 Master Plan, has put completion of a Capacity Study in their long range goal of  60+ months. With the remaining hotel properties in the pipeline for redevelopment, the island may very well have exceeded an acceptable capacity before the study is completed.

The 2014 Master Plan,does not address how to determine Jekyll Island’s ideal carrying capacity, a term which is typically defined as, “The type and level of visitor use that can be recommended while sustaining acceptable resource and social conditions that complement the purpose of the park.”

The one attempt by the Jekyll Island Authority to deal with  carrying capacity – the February 2009 “Analysis of Long-Term Impacts of Development on Jekyll Island” conducted by the Bleakly Advisory Group – fell well short of the mark. In discounting the question of how much resource or social impact is appropriate and acceptable, the Bleakly Advisory Group started with the unjustified assumption that a 65 percent increase in the all-time high number of Jekyll’s lodging units and a peak season daily population of 15,000 people would not affect Jekyll’s traditional character. Bleakly went on to rationalize the proposed increase in Jekyll’s built environment by comparing the built-out Jekyll of the future to a number of coastal vacation destinations that are not at all comparable to Jekyll, and by basing per acre density calculations on a Jekyll Island more than twice its actual acreage. Furthermore, the environmental and ecological impacts of the proposed build-out were not considered in Bleakly’s analysis.

Efforts to establish carrying capacity for public lands have often resulted in frustration, but few have failed as badly in this regard as the Bleakly Group’s analysis of the impacts of development on Jekyll Island. The new (2014) Master Plan for Jekyll Island State Park, therefore, should have addressed the question of carrying capacity. 

A number of planning and management frameworks have been developed to address carrying capacity, all of which include a description of desired future conditions for park resources and visitor experiences; the identification of indicators of quality experiences and resource conditions; establishment of standards that define minimum acceptable conditions; and the formulation of monitoring techniques to determine if and when management action must be taken to keep conditions within standards. Perhaps the best known and most widely followed of these planning and management frameworks is the Limits of Acceptable Change model, or LAC.

LAC—which is geared toward promoting a compromise between the absolute protection of environmental conditions and the visitor experience, on the one hand, and the unrestricted access to resources for recreation or other purposes, on the other—has as its hallmark intimate, substantive public participation in the planning process as a practical means of blending management requirements and public preferences.  By closely involving citizens throughout the planning process, public land managers, in case after case, have been able to foster responsible and defensible decisions regarding park operations, changes and improvements.

A sense of ownership in park planning is clearly essential to its success -- people simply cannot be expected to support that which they do not understand, and they do not understand that in which they have not been involved.  Likewise, people lose interest and confidence in an administrative process when a plan they were ostensibly involved in fails to reflect the positions, remedies, and concerns they voiced. This is particularly true for an issue as complex as planning for – and properly administering – controls on carrying capacity, especially when private development projects and profit motives are part of the mix, as is the case with Jekyll Island State Park.

Put simply, if the "Jekyll experience" is to be preserved, a capacity study must be conducted in advance
of any plans for further development of the state park.

- By David Egan, Co-Director, The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island