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Sierra Club Legislative News

Issue # 10, April 10, 2008

Citizens’ Campaign Wins New Protection for Jekyll Island

Legislative remedies fall short in Committees but Pressure Moves JIA

In the 2007 Session the Club and many other conservationists were deeply involved in an effort to control the redevelopment of Jekyll Island State Park, a resort reserved for the use of “Georgians of average income" since 1950.  Facilities for tourists on the island have been deliberately allowed to deteriorate by its governing body, the Jekyll Island Authority, (JIA), so that a “need” for massive redevelopment could be created.  The politically powerful Reynolds family, funders of national Republican political campaigns, are the redevelopment firm that has been chosen to receive the immense value of building a resort on this State Park.

The JIA has been transformed into a tool of the developer, Linger Longer Resorts, by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has appointed the entire membership of its board.  The whole deal is entirely political. In 2007 the Board wanted to extend its lease of the Park for another 50 or 100 years  and that effort provided an opening for the Sierra Club and other conservationists to get protections in place at the Island’s most critical zone, its southern end.  The southern end has extensive bird habitat and also houses a 4H Club nature center  as well as a popular set of soccer fields.

After the plans of Linger Longer Resorts were revealed over the succeeding months, it became apparent that they wanted to build a “town center” on the current site of the run-down Convention Center, mismanaged by the JIA for at least a decade.   That site is also the most popular public beach at the State Park, with ample parking for day visitors, Georgians of average income, who would be displaced by the ticky-tacky of condominiums, “luxury” hotels and “shopping opportunities.”  The Jekyll advocates sought to limit that misuse of the public’s assets.  Sen. Jeff Chapman, who along with Rep. Debbie Buckner  protected the south end in 2007, was enlisted in a second Jekyll campaign.

Chapman introduced three bills to protect Jekyll.  SB 425 would have prohibited any new permanent residences from the Island.  SB 426 would have barred development of the public beach north of the present Convention Center.  SB 428 would have defined 11 different terms found in the current Jekyll Island Act that have been the subject of disputes by citizens, the JIA and various lawyers involved in conflicts about the Park. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle arranged for those bills to be killed in a sordid meeting in the Capitol’s smallest meeting room, at which the Chairman of the JIA, an old political hack and coastal developer named Ben Porter, called Sen. Chapman a liar. 

Following that episode, another bill, SB 367, which was written to make the Coastal Zone Management Act, a program to cooperate with the federal government, permanent, was taken up in the House Natural Resources Committee.  There Rep. Buckner was able to amend SB 367 by adding the language from Chapman’s bill protecting the beach next to the Convention Center.  This addition was over the objections of Committee Chair Lynn Smith, who had also lost in her committee to Rep. Buckner on another amendment to another bill earlier in the Session.

Tha amended bill went to the House Rules Committee  where Majority Leader Jerry Keen is very influential.  Keen represents Jekyll Island in the GA House but unlike his fellow Republican, Sen. Chapman, Keen is a supporter of the Reynolds development.  SB 367 never moved from Rules.  A third bill from the House, HB 68, by Rep. Terry Barnard, would change the regulations on coastal dock construction in a way that should mean that fewer docks are built on the coast, a good thing.  Sen. Chapman attempted to amend that bill on the Senate Floor so as to prevent development of the Convention Center beach.  Lt. Casey Cagle killed that effort by ruling it “not germane” to the underlying bill.  Both measures dealt with construction on GA’s coast.  (HB 68 would be used on the last day of the session to revive the Coastal Zone bill that Rep. Buckner had amended, inadvertently, to death.)

HB 68 was amended by the Sen. NR Committee to perfect its dock regulation provisions  and those changes had to be agreed to by the House.  Rep. Buckner prepared an amendment for that bill that would have stopped the beach development.  This was the same thing that Casey Cagle prevented Sen. Chapman from doing in the Senate. 

As that matter awaited the vote of the House, the JIA decided to throw in the towel, after their fashion.

JIA Chair Ben Porter wrote a letter to Rep Jerry Keen announcing that the area north of the present Convention Center would be set aside as a public park by the developers, and would be improved for that purpose.  The actual language of the letter included some phrases from the GA Shore Protection Act that indicate to analysts that the promise of the JIA is not as good as a law might make it, but strict enforcement of the Shore Act should protect the beach area from despoliation. 

The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island provided an outstanding example of grassroots citizen lobbying in winning this victory over the toughest of opponents:  a fabulously wealthy and influential developer, a toadying state agency, and the lobbying of former Natural Resources Commissioner Joe D. Tanner, the most formidable insider of them all.  Sierra Club was pleased to be able to work with such outstanding folks, many of them members of the Club, people from all over GA, and all over the US who love Jekyll Island State Park.

The continued protection of this State Park, and probably others during the current era, at least until the mania for “privatization” is finally spent, will continue to be a concern to the GA Sierra Club.   “Privatization,” in GA, is nothing less than the systematic looting of public assets for the exclusive benefit of politically-connected adventurer-businessmen.