Subcommittee approves Jekyll acreage bill
Savannah Morning News
Walter Jones
January 22, 2014

ATLANTA — A House subcommittee quickly approved a bill Tuesday that would specify the acreage limiting development on Jekyll Island, settling nearly four decades of dispute.

Groups that have traditionally been at odds with one another all spoke in support of House Bill 715, telling the Resources Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee that it is the result of careful negotiation. They asked the lawmakers not to make any changes that could unravel the unusual truce.

“A lot of work went into this that you see before you today. A lot of people were at the table,” said Stephanie Benfield, director of the Greenlaw firm of environmental attorneys.

The bill shifts the wording in the law from specifying percentages for development to a number of acres. Trying to adhere to the 35 percent limit on development often led to disputes because weather and tides keep changing the size of the barrier island making the determination difficult.

Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, heard the disputes so long that he decided a simple solution was to spell out the number of acres that can be used for commercial or residential development, including expansion of the state park’s campground and public facilities like walking paths and water-treatment plants.

That leaves 20 acres for future development.

Environmentalists and many residents of the island oppose further development for fear it will damage the ecology or make the island unaffordable for middle-class Georgians.

“Does that mean we can take it to the bank that 1,675 acres is going to be developed land on the island and you won’t be coming back for any more?” asked one of the subcommittee’s most ardent development opponents, Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City.

Richard Royal, chairman of the Jekyll Island Authority, said assured her.

“As long as I’m chair and as long as I’m on the Jekyll Island authority, we’ll never ask for any more,” he said.

The bill still must pass the full committee and the full House. An identical bill is pending in the Senate.