Savannah Morning News
Commentary: Salt marsh isn’t dry land
By Mindy Egan
Fifty years ago, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution carried an article entitled “Jekyll at the Crossroads,” which staked the future of Jekyll Island on the interpretation of the state law limiting development of Jekyll Island to 35 percent of the land area that lies above mean high tide.
For those who were then seeking to maximize the size of the island for development purposes, the vast tidal marsh along the island’s backside was considered “land” to be added to the 35 percent development formula.
The notion that tidal marsh equals land is sufficiently absurd to make one wonder how it might ever have gained traction back then, but it did. And it’s being recycled today, in 2013, as part of the official update of the Jekyll Island Master Plan.
Far from being a matter of semantics, the resolution of the land vs. marsh question will affect Jekyll for decades to come. Here’s why.
If tidal marsh above mean high tide is defined as “land,” which is what the staff of the Jekyll Island Authority has concluded, Jekyll’s land area would be artificially inflated to a whopping 5,543 acres in size and a vast number of acres would thus be eligible for development.
If tidal marsh is not included as part of Jekyll’s land area, the island’s land mass would be 3,817 acres and no additional development would be allowed by law, according to the findings of a task force comprised of state officials, conservationists and academics. This group was formed by the JIA as part of the official update of the 1996 Jekyll Island State Park Master Plan.
The 1,726-acre difference between the JIA staff’s marsh-fat contention and the findings of the so-called 65/35 task force translates into nearly 600 development-eligible acres. Considering that the oceanfront mega-development deal the JIA board struck a few years ago with Linger Longer Communities would have packed some 500 condos and timeshares into just 65 acres, it’s no wonder there’s widespread public concern over the implications of the JIA’s marsh-enriched version of Jekyll’s land mass.
Over the past several weeks, statewide support for the task force’s land area recommendation has grown among conservation-minded organizations. They include the Georgia Conservancy, Center for a Sustainable Coast, GreenLaw, Garden Club of Georgia, Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, Sierra Club, Environment Georgia, Audubon Society and Southern Environmental Law Center.
Believing that expansion of Jekyll’s true size by defining marsh as land is not only wrong, but it would clear the way for character-altering development of Jekyll Island, conservationists are urging state elected officials to encourage the JIA uphold the 65/35 law.
Aligned with the JIA staff is, well, the JIA staff. Not a single organization or group has come forward to defend the Authority’s marsh equals land position.
In an effort to win support for its “marsh is land” contention, the JIA staff recently kicked the can up the road to State Attorney General Sam Olens. It asked him for an opinion on the legality of the 65/35 task force’s land area recommendation.
What is now known, though, is the JIA did not just send the report to the AG, as it claimed, but tacked on a two-page rebuttal of the task force’s land area recommendation. It suggested that the task force “went rogue” in defying “JIA staff guidance” regarding how to properly measure Jekyll’s land area, “properly” meaning defining salt marsh as dry land.
AG support for the JIA’s marsh equals land position would arm the JIA with hundreds of acres to develop. It’s a proposition that alarms those who hold tight to the 65/35 law and envision character-altering development of Jekyll Island if the JIA has its way.
The attorney general’s endorsement of the task force’s report would prevent further development of Jekyll’s natural areas, but would allow redevelopment of any land already defined as “developed.”
A ruling from Olens is expected within the next few weeks.
Jekyll is, indeed, at the crossroads once again.
Mindy Egan is co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park and a resident of Jekyll Island.