House bill limiting Jekyll development introduced
State Rep. Mark Hamilton's bill would leave only 20 new acres for commercial growth
Georgia Times-Union
By Walter C. Jones & Terry Dickson
January 14, 2014 

ATLANTA | An agreement worked out between environmentalists, property owners and other groups interested in the limits to development on Jekyll Island is the subject of legislation introduced Tuesday.

House Bill 715, by Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, is now pending in the House Natural Resources Committee.

When Hamilton chaired the committee that oversees the state park on Jekyll, he noticed that the whole time, the debate on how to determine the area of developable high ground was based on changes in the tides.

“So, simple-minded Mark Hamilton, one of the first things I said is why don’t we put a stake in the ground, why don’t we determine at some point in time the acreage of the 65 and 35 ... and say ‘this is developable, and this is not developable’?” he said.

The reason it matters is because a 1971 law that is still in effect limits development to 35 percent of the island, leaving the remaining 65 percent in its natural state. The original standard set in the 1950s was 50-50.

Hamilton said he began discussing his plan with the various groups and eventually won a settlement.

“The idea took off,” he said. “... They tried to find reasons it wouldn’t work, and quite honestly, they found fewer and fewer ideas. Then we were able to get to the point where we have agreement.”

The numbers would be in a new master plan. When the governing Jekyll Island Authority agreed to a set acreage for development late last year, it adopted a 1,675-acre cap, which leaves 66 acres available for future projects. Of that, however, only 20 acres could be used for commercial development with the rest set aside for roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure projects.

Hamilton’s bill actually ups the acreage a little to 78 total acres because someone caught an omission, 12 acres already set aside for expansion of the island’s campground, said resident David Egan, a co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island.

The important number, 20 acres for commercial development, remains unchanged.

Egan said he supports the fixed acreage solution as do other environmental groups.

“It’s pretty much as we anticipated,’’ he said of the bill.

Although the authority had said it did not plan to develop any land outside its existing footprint, the members decided to provide for some wiggle room.

“This board’s been saying this all along,’’ Egan said of staying inside the footprint, ‘‘but they also say they would be derelict in their duties if they tied the hands of future authorities.”

Egan said he is also happy with some of the language in Hamilton’s bill especially the use of the word “forever” although he knows laws can and do get changed.

“Legislation can always be amended, but it’s nice to have such strong language,’’ he said.

Egan and others were dismayed at the latest computation of the island’s overall size as 5,530 acres. That’s a huge jump from the 4,226 acres in the master plan adopted in 1996.

The larger area would have given this and future Jekyll Island Authorities more than 300 additional acres to develop, but it is the computation method that made no sense to opponents.

The 1971 law refers to high ground as everything “above mean high tide,’’ and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which sets the tide marks, has come up with a mean high tide mark around Jekyll Island that is about 1.7 feet lower than one used in 1996.

Egan could only shake his head at new maps based on NOAA’s mean high tide line. The problem was, that a lot of the high ground shown on the maps was flooded at even average high tides.

“All you’ve got to do is look at the marsh and figure it out,’’ he said.

The island’s changing size was another factor that bedeviled officials. Like most barrier islands, Jekyll Island is losing ground on its north end to erosion and gaining it on the south to accretion.