Jekyll Island dispute

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

A dispute over the “land” that can be developed on Jekyll Island has reached the attorney general’s office. A task force recently said no marshland should be included in tallying the island’s land mass, a recommendation that could restrict future hotels and condos. Those who run the state park dispute that ruling, while an environmentalist fears that easing restrictions will put sensitive marshes in danger.

Commenting is open below.

Marsh or not, Jekyll’s future may ride on it

By David Kyler

Amid the ongoing update of the Jekyll Island master plan, debate has arisen over the intent of a 1971 law restricting development to no more than 35 percent of Jekyll Island’s land area above mean high tide (MHT). The controversy is not whether MHT should be used as the legal standard, but whether some 1,700 acres of Jekyll’s tidal marsh above MHT legally qualify as “land.”

A task force appointed by the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) said “no.” But the JIA now says “yes,” and is seeking the attorney general’s support.

No one asserts that the JIA intends to build within the marsh. But many are concerned about the consequences — both on Jekyll and beyond — of an interpretation of the 65/35 law that would, in effect, make the island larger than its actual land area.

If Jekyll is artificially expanded by 1,700 acres, 35 percent of that sizable area, or nearly 600 additional acres, would become eligible for development. Those acres would be carved out of the 65 percent of upland now conserved for public recreational use.

Although the 65/35 law does not define “land,” Georgia’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970 is quite specific in distinguishing between uplands and marshes. Under that law, marshes are neither “land” nor eligible for active use or development, except for strictly limited purposes.

Under other Georgia law, tidal marshes and other “waters of the state” must be protected by a natural upland buffer at least 25 feet wide to help reduce pollution from upland activities.

If all “areas” above MHT become part of Jekyll’s “land,” it is likely that the buffer could be shifted into the marsh, even though marsh is not land by legal definition. If that happened, buffer protection would be eliminated.

Similarly, incorrectly equating marsh with land could weaken the Marsh Act by providing legal grounds for developers along the coast to win comparable exemptions.

In light of such considerations, it is troubling that the JIA is insisting that tidal marsh be included in Jekyll’s calculated upland area used to set development limits.

The JIA rationalizes that prior master plans counted marsh as land. Those plans are deeply flawed on several counts, including failure to properly apply the 65/35 law, evoking the maxim that “there never was a mistake that got better by repeating.”

Georgia’s marshes are extremely important to the citizens of our state and vital to the quality of life on Georgia’s coast. Based on extensive scientific studies, Georgia’s vast tidal marsh generates an annual value of more than $6 billion in public benefits, including fish, shellfish, eco-tourism, water filtration and protection of property against storm damage.

To safeguard this important resource, it is essential that all legal controls are consistently interpreted and enforced.

Likewise, achieving responsible redevelopment of Jekyll Island depends on undeviating application of legally consistent, scientifically verified distinctions between upland and marshes.

Calling tidal marsh above mean high tide on Jekyll “land” does not make it so.

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast in St. Simons Island.

Development limited to existing footprint

By Eric Garvey

It recently has been asserted that the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) wants to change the definition of marshland. This simply is not true. The reality is the JIA has no “authority” when it comes to the question, “What is marshland?” That power lies with the state’s lawmakers. As far as the JIA is concerned, to build in the ecologically vital marshland is completely out of the question.

The underlying issue is really about the limitations of development on Jekyll Island. As sure as high tide follows low, this discussion unfailingly provokes a public outcry whose impassioned plea is clear: Do not let Jekyll Island become the next (fill-in-the-blank overdeveloped beach destination).

We wholeheartedly agree. The JIA has been busy with revitalization intended to protect the island’s unique character. All the new commercial development you hear about is occurring within existing footprints and is not adding to the amount of “developed” land. On Jekyll Island, “developed” basically means any land not in its original, natural state, and includes bike paths, historic sites, picnic areas and golf courses. In all, this “developed” land must be kept to no more than just 35 percent of the island’s total land area above “mean high tide,” as defined in the 1971 law establishing the 35-percent limitation on development.

Significant acreage of marshland in and around Jekyll Island is above “mean high tide” and has always been counted as part of the island’s total land area. But it is not to be built on. In the current Jekyll Island master plan, this marshland is delineated as environmentally sensitive. It is protected under the Jekyll Island conservation plan and also regulated under Georgia’s Coastal Marshland Protection Act. No one is considering anything other than protecting this invaluable natural resource. Period.

Under the guidance of the current Jekyll Island master plan, a long-downward trend in visitation has been reversed through careful stewardship. Accomplishments include creation of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center; enactment of a lighting ordinance to protect sea turtle nesting habitat; formation of a comprehensive conservation plan; establishment of design guidelines limiting building height; development of a “certified-green” convention center; re-creation of the beachfront park, and the addition and rehabilitation of more than 10 miles of bike trails. As new hotels open, each must receive certification for energy conservation and sustainability. And each will be located within existing developed footprints.

The JIA is demonstrating its commitment to a thoughtful vision for the future through a new master plan that carries forward the firm line on limited development.

I encourage you to visit and see if you agree we are on the right track. And as you marvel at the periwinkle snails clinging to the spartina marsh grass, gaze across the vast Marshes of Glynn to the setting sun and know that Jekyll Island, under the stewardship of the Jekyll Island Authority, will remain a special place — the nearest faraway place — for you, your children and their children.

Eric Garvey is chief communications officer for the Jekyll Island Authority.

89 comments Add your comment


May 11th, 2013
7:56 pm

I strongly support David Kyler’s Editorial, Marsh or not, Jekyll’s future may ride on it. Jekyll Island was donated for everyone to use and enjoy the beauty of this area. JIA continuously tries to develop every square inch of it. When they hear “no, it’s not developable” they simply try another approach. To quote David Kyler, “Georgia’s marshes are extremely important to the citizens of our state and vital to the quality of life on Georgia’s coast. … To safeguard this important resource, it is essential that all legal controls are consistently interpreted and enforced.” The State of GA needs new JIA Board Members that want the best for Jekyll Island. The present members are greedy and want profit at any cost.


May 11th, 2013
6:33 pm

Ellen — Thanks for the tip about the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. I just now went to their website and joined that group. I’m hoping that they can live up to the promises made in their Mission Statement. I’ve been visiting Jekyll a couple of times per year for the last three decades and love the place but did not know about the Initiative to Protect Jekyll group. Is it a brand new organization?

Janice Arndel

May 11th, 2013
6:20 pm

The land grab on Jekyll is shortsighted. People go there for pristine nature and a relaxed, under-built atmosphere. Building it up and adding NEW footprints to the development plan destroys the island’s appeal. Right now, eyesore land lies fallow where old hotels, etc., used to be. Why not develop THOSE FIRST and not try to turn Jekyll into Hilton Head just to make a buck in the next 5 years? Come on, leaders, smarten up and do your job to protect Georgians’ interests — not corporations’.

Winter Resident

May 11th, 2013
6:19 pm

As I was researching info to write comments concerning the ongoing dispute over the 65/35 land rule on Jekyll Island, I came to the realization that the rule does indeed need to be changed but not as currently requested by JIA! Serious consideration should be given in modifying it in the other direction from the current 65/35 to 70/30 or even 75/25. The current data on future sea rise & expected shoreline changes causes one to give serious thought to what the future holds for Jekyll. It is a well known fact that barrier islands need to be fluid & should not have permanent structures built on them. The prudent thing to do would be to evaluate future projects with an educated eye toward what is truly realistic for future development. Storm Sandy was a true eye opener & JIA needs to heed that storm’s warnings & act responsibly, abandoning the push for more upland development. When greed overtakes common sense, no good can come of it. I strongly urge the state of Georgia to consider tightening up permitted development rather than relaxing the regs!


May 11th, 2013
6:17 pm

I have been in love with Jekyll since shortly after moving here in 1970. It was so wonderful to have a place of natural beauty created for the average citizen. Restrictions were imposed restricting building so that the pristine beauty of the island would be maintained for generations to come. The JIA was established to protect the island; not destroy it as they have been trying to do. There are PLENTY of beaches with boardwalks, carnival rides, wild and crazy night clubs so that people who look for that can go there. There are a lot of us who don’t want that at a beach. We love having a calm family atmosphere where time is spent together rather than everyone goes their separate ways. For some reason JIA seems to feel that our beloved Island should just become another run of the mill beach and is doing everything in their power to destroy it. Counting the marshes as ‘land’ that will increase the building area on the real land causing over building and destruction. There are groups tying to fight this. I’m involved with Initiative for the Protection of Jekyll Island. Go to their website and see how they are fighting; not just complaining!


May 11th, 2013
5:54 pm

Obviously, a lot of people are very upset over the JIA’s effort to count marsh as land for the dual purpose of making the island bigger and having more acres to build on. But, how can the public stir over what appears to be a JIA land grab have a positive effect? What can we do? The Governor appoints the JIA board. Is there a way for concerned citizens to come together and encourage him to remove the bad apples from that Authority? I mean, I like to complain as much as he next guy, but I also like to see my complaints yield results. Are there groups out there trying to stop the JIA from perpetrating its land = marsh fraud? What about a legal challenge, or how about amending the 65-35 law so it leaves no doubt about marsh being off limits when figuring the number of acres that can be developed?

Chuck Murphy

May 11th, 2013
5:07 pm

The law is very clear: Marshes and swamps are NOT land, and JIA should not be trying to count them as such in order to increase the amount of land which can be developed. Yes, I do understand nobody can, or is proposing to build in the marshes. But the changes JIA is proposing will work to the detriment of the ecology of the island and only diminish the special character of Jekyll.


May 11th, 2013
3:52 pm

One only has to look at the recent causeway edge clear cutting of vegetation to understand that JIA does not care to understand or recognize that there is a necessary natural buffer between the high water mark and high land. The causeway itself is man-made built up land across the marsh (just the kind of insult the wetlands protection act is to prevent) – but over the years where the water and land meet, nature had healed itself by establishing that buffer of select vegetation peculiar to wetlands. JIA evidently thought a clear cut view of water more pleasing and appropriate than the natural habitat of junipers, grasses, flowers, animals, birds. The racoon might as well walk the causeway! SO JIA ground up all the vegetation and carefully landscaped the water’s edge with the chips. One would think chips may wash into the water and a storm surge may find the causeway more succeptible to a wash out without the barrier of tree roots. JIA, Please accept the 35/65 rule without trying to manipulate the acerage by adding the marshlands into the dry LAND totals. IF 35% of the land is now modified, then NO MORE disturbance. AND rebuild with great care and consideration of usefulness for the majority of Georgia’s citizens and guests.

Longtime resident

May 11th, 2013
3:10 pm

I am a veteran of the fight to validate the 65/35 mandate working with Ed Boshears and Willou Smith to insure that the JIA did not ignore or cause the mandate to be altered.. As my favorite President used to say: “here we go again!” While paying lip service to the provisions of the mandate, the current JIA is attempting to go around it by creating an artificial argument concerning the status of marshes. Even they and the greedy instigators behind this latest move know that they cannot fill-in and or build in the marshes. They simply want the marshes to be counted as land so that they can overbuild on existing land. An old investigative adage says “follow the money” and another legal adage is “cui bonus” (who gains from this). It is up to the people of Georgia who own the Island to stand up as they did before to protect their jewel. I appeal to our representatives in the Georgia legislature to intervene as did their predecessors Ed Boshears and Willou Smith to stop this nonsense