Jekyll Island: Listen to Olens
Savannah Morning News
July 3, 2013

LAST WEEK’S much-anticipated opinion by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens about Jekyll Island can be summed up this way:

You’ve got to play the cards you’ve been dealt.

In the case, there wasn’t much of a hand regarding possible over-development that could harm the island. And while that’s disappointing, it’s not the end of the game.

Not even close.

It simply means the Georgia Legislature must re-deal — and the public must have a seat at the table for a full debate.

Mr. Olens had been asked for his legal opinion about a 1971 state law that mandates that only 35 percent of Jekyll Island’s total land area can be used for hotels, golf courses and other developments. That’s because there was a dispute over what constitutes “land.”

That definition is vitally important for the state-owned island’s future.

Common sense dictates that marshland and wetland should be excluded from land that’s considered upland, dry and developable. If it could wind up under water during high tide, then the terra is not very firma for a pool deck or a putting green.

That’s essentially what an appointed task force said in April. It calculated that Jekyll actually was slightly overdeveloped right now at 38 percent — about 136 acres over the limit.

But the Jekyll Island Authority, the public board that oversees the island, disagreed with that assessment. It hoped to stick with measurements done 17 years ago, which showed Jekyll’s land mass to be larger. This calculation pegged Jekyll at 32 percent developed, leaving about 108 acres for potential construction projects.

You’d think figuring out land mass would be simple. You’d also think wrong.

Blame state legislators who passed the law 42 years ago.

Mr. Olens said the language that legislators adopted didn’t exclude marsh or wetlands. It also failed to recognize marsh that’s clearly above mean high tide. Why? Who knows?

What is certain is that the attorney general doesn’t make laws. Georgia law also prohibits the AG from considering legislative intent. So even if lawmakers meant to exclude marshland from Jekyll’s land mass calculation, Mr. Olens can’t consider that wish. He can only look at words on paper.

But to his credit, Mr. Olens didn’t mean that his opinion should be interpreted as a green light for the JIA to start developing more acreage. Far from it. Instead, he wrote JIA Executive Director Jones Hooks and said that any plan by the authority to substantially increase the island’s measured land area must be “thoroughly vetted in a public process.”

He also said the Georgia Legislature should sign off on any new plan. He’s correct and giving wise counsel. Mr. Hooks and the authority should listen to the state’s chief lawyer.

Just because the 1971 law — a fine piece of legislation in other respects — had a loophole doesn’t mean developers can drive a bulldozer through it.

Jekyll is a popular place because it’s largely undeveloped. It’s the Georgia coast the way it used to be. Fix the law to reflect common sense, so this jewel that belongs to the common man remains that way.