Protecting the "People's Park" at Jekyll, Island, Georgia
By David Egan
Initiative to Protect Jeyll Island (IPJI)
The story of how an all-volunteer civic group fought successfully to prevent the commercialization of the main public beach in Jekyll Island State Park, Georgia, is one worth telling, as it relates to a larger and pressing issue – the threat posed to priceless public land around the country by private development. So, let’s take a look at Jekyll Island, the campaign to protect the island from inappropriate development, and the outcome of this protracted struggle.
Jekyll Island is blessed with pristine beaches, a dense maritime forest, and vast marshlands, making the 8-mile long barrier island own of the most spectacular natural features along the east coast. Home to more than 30 exotic, endangered, threatened, and rare species, Jekyll Island is truly a living laboratory of nature’s wonders.
Purchased in 1947 by the state of Georgia from a group of northeast millionaires for whom it had served as a winter retreat since the turn of the century, Jekyll Island became a state park in 1950, expressly for the benefit of “the plain people of Georgia” and with the mandate that its facilities be affordable for average income citizens. “Everyman’s island,” “the people’s park,” and the “poor man’s Riviera” are just a few of the endearing names given to Jekyll because of its populist roots.
Over the last 60 years, millions of ordinary folks have been able to vacation at Jekyll’s affordable oceanfront hotels and to experience the wonders of a barrier island rightly called “Georgia’s Jewel.” Flanked to the north by upscale St. Simon’s Island and Sea Island, Jekyll is viewed by some as the poor sister of Georgia’s “Golden Isles,” but for many it outshines neighboring high-end islands, thanks to its miles of open beach, natural beauty and southern grace, and the warm embrace it extends to all who set foot on its shores.
Beginning in 2007, the Jekyll Island Authority (the Governor-appointed agency entrusted with the care of the island) began to talk of plans to ‘revitalize’ the state park through a private-public partnership established with high-end developer Linger Longer Communities, a company owned by the politically-connected Reynolds family. Initially, most people interpreted revitalization as meaning that Jekyll’s aging oceanfront hotels would be rebuilt and its amenities would receive a facelift. However, it soon became apparent that ‘revitalization’ included hundreds of condos—some selling for nearly a million dollar each—time shares galore, and a high-end hotel for Jekyll Island’s main public beach.
The implications of new development masquerading as ‘revitalization’ led to public outcry and the birth of a civic group called the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island (IPJI).
As public protest mounted through emails, letters, phone calls, and petitions to the JIA and elected officials, the Jekyll development issue became a hot item for the media and worked its way into the halls of the State Legislature, where Senator Jeff Chapman, whose district includes Jekyll Island, tried to introduce legislation to safeguard Jekyll’s remaining open beachfront and help ensure the park’s accessibility and affordability. Although nearly 20,000 citizens endorsed Senator Chapman’s Resolution calling for Jekyll’s remaining open beach to be a development-free zone, leaders of the state’s majority party nonetheless chose to back Linger Longer’s plan, leading to the death of the Jekyll bills in committee and clearing the way for the beachside project to move forward.
In response to the media attention garnered by Senator Chapman’s Jekyll bills and the growing public uproar over the proposal to commercialize Jekyll’s most popular public beach, the JIA and Linger Longer went on the attack, claiming that the people opposed to the beach village project were but a small group of malcontents trying to sabotage Jekyll’s ‘improvement’ for their own selfish reasons. To quote an op-ed piece written by Linger Longer’s project manager, “A very small group of detractors say that they don’t want anything to change on the island. They see the island as their private ‘discovery’, and they really don’t want any more visitors. But the vast majority of Georgians are sad that the island is not a fun destination anymore, and they are eager to see their old friend Jekyll revitalized. Those that see the details of the Linger Longer plan believe that this plan has the right amount of development without going too far. Georgians want to come back to the island and bring their families – but only after the new project gives them compelling reasons to return.”
Ironically, the above statement was made after Linger Longer had presented its project proposal at a series of public meetings around the state at which over 90 percent of the participants voiced opposition to the beach village plan. Conveniently, when Linger Longer placed the videotape of the town hall meetings on You Tube, the public comments were omitted, leaving only a glitzy presentation made by Linger Longer’s representatives in which the alleged benefits and popularity of the beach village project were extolled.
Deception deepened when the chairman of the JIA board of directors amplified Linger Longer’s misrepresentation of public opinion, stating in a letter to State legislators, “A select group of individuals, most of whom live full-time on the Island they like to call a ‘state park,’ believe that vacationers should not be able to stay in accommodations along the shoreline, which is, of course, where most people would naturally like to stay. This group of individuals has started a campaign to ‘save’ what essentially is a large asphalt parking lot along the beach. What they really want to do is stop the beach village project.” This statement was made after IPJI had presented the JIA with more than 200 pages of public comments from people around the state protesting the beach village project, and after IPJI had released the results of its survey of more than 10,000 Jekyll visitors from over 350 towns in Georgia and 49 states, which recorded nearly unanimous opposition to what Linger Longer was proposing.
The JIA and Linger Longer also attempted to counter the growing evidence that the beach village project was wildly unpopular with Jekyll’s visitors by claiming that the written comments they had received about the project were overwhelmingly favorable, yet both parties refused to make those comments public when asked to do so by IPJI. Knowing that the truth was being misrepresented, IPJI filed an Open Records Act request in order to get a look at the comments sent to the JIA. An analysis of those comments revealed, to no one’s surprise, that the vast majority were, in fact, critical of the project.
Given the JIA’s intransigence and misrepresentation of the facts, and the political clout wielded by Linger Longer, it appeared that the mega-beach village project—despite public opinion—was unstoppable, but, as fate would have it, those who were pushing the project had failed to do their environmental homework. IPJI learned that nearly two-thirds of the beach village project fell within the jurisdiction of Georgia’s Shore Protection Act (SPA) and would require a permit to move forward. The SPA provides for the right of public appeal should the permitting committee rule favorably on a development proposal. Since appeals of this sort have tied up development plans in court for years, and because IPJI made it clear that legal action would follow if a permit were to be granted for beach village project, the project lost much of its luster for Linger Longer. The JIA, claiming to be ever mindful of public opinion, promptly announced the beach village project would be scaled back by two-thirds, allowing Jekyll’s most popular public beach to remain development free.
What was once branded as “a small group of local malcontents” suddenly was translated into “statewide public opinion” by a JIA now eager to claim that it was taking seriously the mandate that it honor public trust. Ideas for a small Jekyll village that were once mislabeled as the views of a group “opposed to all change on the island” now became the official plan for the Jekyll village. The people’s proposal for keeping Jekyll’s main public beach largely unobstructed by commercial development had, after 18 months of protest, come to fruition.
All’s well that end’s well would be an appropriate epitaph for the Jekyll development story if the story were to end here but, unfortunately, ii does not. The JIA and Linger Longer have recently entered into a 25-year partnership which includes two additional phases for Jekyll’s ‘revitalization’ beyond the scaled-down beach village project. Privatization of the park’s key amenities, the conversion of a key recreational facility into a condo community, and commercial/residential development of currently forested areas of the island are on the JIA’s development agenda for the next 5 to 10 years.
IPJI will continue to monitor the JIA’s ‘revitalization’ plans and to support responsible renovation of Jekyll Island State Park, the imperatives of which are:
•Rebuild what needs rebuilding but do not build along Jekyll’s remaining open beachfront. •Refrain from building near Jekyll’s environmentally-sensitive areas. •Ensure that Jekyll’s character, feel and grace are not compromised by development. •Remain true to Jekyll’s tradition of affordability for average income citizens. •Give pride of place to the vision of Jekyll’s future held by its principal stakeholders - those “plain people of Georgia” for whom the park was set aside 60 years ago. To view the entire October 2009 issue of The Order of the Earth, click here.