Spanish Moss hangs from trees around pristine parts of Jekyll Island if developers get their wish and marsh areas are counted as land, then more of the island will be opened for future use.
By Pam O’Dell
The Jekyll Island Authority has asked the Attorney General’s office to weigh in on a task force’s recommendation that marsh not be considered in determining the island’s land base. The land measurement is significant because it determines, according to state law, the amount of development that can occur on the island.
Hence, the determination on whether or not marsh is counted as land pits environmentalists and citizen activists against those who favor greater development on the island.
The naming of the “65/35 Task Force” alludes to the 1971 law which limits development to 35 percent of the island’s land area. If the amount of total land space is increased, the amount of developable land is also increased. The land count is central to the development of the island’s “Master Plan,” a process which is intended to guide the authority and the public in balancing the recreational and environmental attributes of the island while ensuring that the park be economically self-sufficient and affordable.
According to Eric Garvey, spokesman for the authority: “Because the 65/35 Task Force’s alternate method apparently conflicts with the Jekyll Island Authority’s enabling legislation, the staff has requested a legal review by the Office of the Attorney General. “Pending advice from the Attorney General, no decisions regarding the task force recommendations have been made.”
The task force membership is heavily weighted with state employees and authority staff members all appointed by the authority. According to Eric Garvey, JIA spokesman, David Egan, founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, was invited by the authority’s Executive Director, Jones Hooks, to serve on the task force based on his experience with the subject matter.
The authority is now asking the Attorney General to review Egan’s role in the task force’s determinations and the fact that the non-profit he leads has retained the public interest environmental firm Green Law as legal counsel.
In a letter to the Attorney General, Green Law attorney, Steven Caley, contends that Egan’s position on the task force is irrelevant unless a law suit is filed. The JIA staff believes it may be a conflict of interest.
Regardless of Egan’s participation, the task force would have had a majority for the new land count criteria.
The task force contends that the amount of land that can be developed has already been exceeded (by 3 percent). If the marsh is counted as land, only 32 percent of the 35 percent available has been developed, leaving 166 acres available for what Garvey believes will be “recreational amenities.”
Garvey notes that the island’s revitalization plan uses a very strict definition of “development” considering golf courses, ball parks, and walking trails to be “developed.” He contends that commercial amenities such as hotels and stores will be built according to the “existing footprint” and not sprawled out amidst untouched habitat and landscape.
Not so contends Egan, who worries about the long-term impact of any decision that would increase the acreage subject to development.
“What might Jekyll look like decades from now if hundreds of acres become eligible for development by having salt marsh miscounted as land? Well, it would most likely have to be within the maritime forest. Remember, at one time St. Simon’s Island was largely a beautiful maritime forest; now the island is packed with homes shaded by what’s left of that once spectacular natural feature.
“While I doubt if the current JIA board has any plans for expansive development of Jekyll Island, boards change over time, and who knows what might one day be done with those hundreds of acres?”
Garvey concluded: “What we all agree on is the limitation of development on Jekyll Island as to protect beauty and unique character of the island. This island is a special place so, of course people are passionate, but, although we may not agree every step of the way, we’ll get there together.”
O’Dell provides news on state government through, The O’Dell Report in newspapers in North Georgia and her blog, odellreport.com. She can be contacted at pamodellreport @gmail.com