Conservationists bristle at new Jekyll development plans
The number would supplant the existing formula based on the percentage of barrier island's land.
August 27, 2013
JEKYLL ISLAND - The Jekyll Island Authority agreed Monday to set aside about 66 acres for future development, 46 of which would be restricted to use for health, public safety and recreation.
The new numbers will go into a draft of the island’s new master plan and would be the first step in establishing the first firm acreage — 1,675.8 acres in this case — that could be developed on the state-owned barrier island. Under Georgia law, no more than 35 percent of the island can be developed.
Because that number falls under 35 percent, the governing Jekyll Island Authority is considering asking for legislation to drop the percentage requirement and substitute a set number of acres.
“We do recognize the authority has taken a step in the right direction today,” said Steve Caley, a senior attorney with GreenLaw, an environmental law firm based in Atlanta.
But Caley said that he and conservationists believe the authority has already developed more than is allowed under the limiting law.
“Any increase further violates the statute,” he said.
Dave Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, agreed.
“That’s bogus,’’ he said of authority staff’s assertion that only 29 percent of the 5,530-acre island has been developed. “They’re already at 38 percent.”
Island size in dispute
The disagreement on the percentage is rooted in the computation of the island’s size. The authority is basing its numbers on the law that says any of the island above mean, or average, high tide can be considered land. In a recent opinion, Attorney General Sam Olens agreed.
But Kyler, Caley and most members of an appointed task force that worked on the master plan said that the authority is counting marsh as land.
Caley said the problem is that the authority is fixated on an invisible line established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The authority says anything above that line is land regardless of whether it floods.
“They’re focused on the mean high tide line. They’re not looking at what is above water,’’ Caley said.
David Egan, island resident and co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park, has studied the maps and said a lot of what the authority calls land is obviously marsh.
“The majority of that marsh is under water at a typical high tide” without any boosting factors such as full moons or northeast winds, he said.
The attorney general is looking at case law rather “than what is in front of their nose,” Egan said.
Some members of the task force asserted that the authority should take the common-sense approach and exclude any land that is flooded at even the highest of high tides.
John Hunter, Jekyll Island’s director of historic resources, had recommended setting aside only 42 more acres for development, about 12 acres for expanding the island’s popular campground and the rest for any required expansion of the water and sewer system and the clearing of approaches to the airport.
“I’m uncomfortable with only 42 acres” because of the possibility of unforeseen circumstances in the future, authority board member Jim Kruger said. “Who knows down the road? We’re locked in and something could happen.”
Kruger said he would have preferred a minimum of 75 more acres.
Playing the devil’s advocate, board member Mike Hodges said the island has 326 more acres it could develop legally.
“You’re going to drop that to ... 67. I understand we would rather redevelop than develop. Why not 167?” he said.
Executive Director Jones Hooks used redevelopment in explaining why not 167.
“There are redevelopment opportunities throughout the island,’’ Hooks said, naming off vacant property where hotels had stood and other sites.
“You should be in good shape no matter what the future may hold,” Hooks said.
Hodges reminded him that the action would bind Jekyll Island authorities for a “very long time.”
That may be, Hooks said. “The greatest asset of the island is the natural beauty,” and the authority has to protect and sustain those natural areas, he said.
The plan as outlined by Hunter has balance, he said.
The board agreed to the 67 acres, but that will be just part of a draft of the master plan to be considered later. Before the master plan is adopted, the authority must collect public comments.