Jekyll Island board may ask legislators to set firm acreage limit on development
Change would end debate over law requiring that 65 percent of state-owned island be kept natural
July 16, 2013
By Terry Dickson
JEKYLL ISLAND | The island’s governing board said Monday it may ask for legislation setting a firm acreage for development on the state-owned island, which could end disputes over the so-called 65-35 rule.
In a late morning workshop on the island’s master plan, the Jekyll Island Authority board member Buddy DeLoach said making the acreage part of state law would end the need for basing development on the legally mandated limit of 35 percent of the island’s land.
That acreage would fall within that 35 percent limit, he said.
“If that complies with the law, why would we have to do anything else?’’ DeLoach asked.
The board has come under fire from conservation groups based on a more-than 40-year-old state law saying that the authority must not develop more than 35 percent of the land above the mean high tide. A task force drawing up a new master plan wanted the island’s size determine by surveying land above the highest tides, but Attorney General Sam Olens said that authority must use the mean high tide standard because it is a state law.
Member Bob Kruger said the board does not plan to develop any land outside its existing footprint, but that it may “need 100 acres in our packet in case something happens.”
But Langford Holbrook of the University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government reminded the board the island’s size changes.
“The island is a barrier island. It shifts,’’ as would the amount of land on which development plans are based, he said.
As an example, Holbrook cited a large beach that has accreted on the south end of the island since the 1996 master plan.
The standard for measuring the island has caused a storm of recent controversy. Conservation groups have argued that the mean, or average, high tide does not take into consideration marshlands created by flooding of higher full moon, new moon or storm tides. Although it is marsh, the Jekyll Island Authority can call marsh above the mean high tide land and use it to compute the amount of actual dry ground it can develop.
Steve Caley, a senior lawyer of the Atlanta environmental firm GreenLaw, said he believes setting the acreage could be a solution.
“Then we don’t get into this 65-35 discussion every three years,’’ he said. “We think it’s worth considering.”
David Egan of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island also said, “this fixed acreage idea does have appeal.”
Caley said he was also glad to hear Kruger say the authority planned only to develop inside its existing footprint.
But there are still some disagreements on numbers, Caley said, noting the authority claims to have developed 27 percent of the available land while others say the number is at least 10 percent higher and that the authority already has passed the 35 percent limit.
Being a barrier island is not the only thing that changes Jekyll Island’s size. The survey methods also change and, with them, the island’s computed size.
In 1996, Jekyll Island was found to have 4,224 acres, it dropped to 4,174 in 2008, then took a leap to its current 4,530. The authority said that is based on new, more accurate technology.
Caley said perhaps so, but it omits common sense and used the authority’s most recent map to make his point.
Pointing to a big swath of marsh on the northwestern said of the island, Caley said that area is now considered land above a line that NOAA set as the mean high tide mark.
“The effect of the attorney general’s opinion is being seen. They’ve got the Great Horn area shown as land. Try walking across that,’’ Caley said.
If an area can’t be leased, subdivided or sold, it can’t be considered land, he said.
Egan, who is a Jekyll Island resident, said the tides on the western side of the island where the marshes are located don’t follow the NOAA charts. They usually flood areas above the mean high tide mark even during normal tides, he said.
Even if the land measurement debate ends, the Jekyll Island board has plenty of other issues to decide, such as what is considered developed.
Some narrow strips between golf course fairways are considered natural just because they aren’t mowed, Jekyll Island Authority Executive Director Jones Hooks said.
“I can tell you a lot of golf balls go in there,’’ he said.
Also, bike trails through some wooded undeveloped areas are not counted as development while others are, Hooks said. Some ponds on golf courses are developed while others on the island are defined as natural.
Also, some land that is now considered developed may be returned to the natural side of the ledger,
including some vacant residential lots on the island’s south end that have been put off limits to development by state law.
Before adjourning the meeting, Chairman Richard Royal said, “Now the work begins.”
After Kruger leaned toward him and quietly said something, Royal amended his statement with, “Mr. Kruger has corrected me to say continues.”
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405