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.

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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

Molly Williams

May 10th, 2013
7:36 pm

Please don’t expand Jekyll’s developed footprint and ruin the reasons we visit regularly (and have for almost 20 years). Jekyll isn’t like most islands we could choose to visit; those are too developed, too built, too full of stuff — and they are a dime a dozen, all pretty much alike. Jekyll is distinctive, unique, a true treasure. What we like about Jekyll is the ecosystem, the variety of bird life, the sea turtles, the quiet, the relative lack of restaurants, stores, high-rises, hotels, condos (other than the Villas), etc. Please don’t try to make it like everywhere else. You can never go back once you go down that well-trod, commercial road.

Steve Arnold

May 10th, 2013
7:30 pm

My first visit to Jekyll Island was in 1960, I was only 12 at the time and it was a adventure of a life time. The Dunes seemed as if they were mountains, Was stayed a a soon to be opened to the public the “Course Air Hotel” Baby sea turtles were seen rushing to the sea, sand dollars were every where.
These are just a few of my memories. Now some 50 plus years later I have a summer home on Jekyll.
The 35/65 established many years ago was intended to insure that all the future 12 year old’s can have the same experience and true adventure I once had.
There is NO NEED to change what has served to protect our our Island and when I say our I speak of all Georgians as well as visitors far and wide.
Say NO to the proposed changes…

Steve Arnold
Loganville, Ga.


May 10th, 2013
7:07 pm

We love Jekyll and have been coming since the 1970s. The peace and beauty of Jekyll is truly unique. Please, please don’t change it. There are so few pristine areas left. It is truly “Georgia’s Jewel” and needs to be kept unspoiled for future generations.


May 10th, 2013
6:44 pm

Please save Jekyll, It is one of the few spots left that isn’t over developed. We have been going to Jekyll for over 40 years and want our families to be able to continue to enjoy this very special place

South Georgia Girl

May 10th, 2013
6:40 pm

I am a Georgia native and have visited Jekyll countless times in my five decades. One of Jekyll’s primary attractions for me and others who share my philosophy is its lack of commercial development. I am saddened by the efforts of those who would ruin that wilderness experience for us. –Douglas, GA

Mary Smith

May 10th, 2013
5:07 pm

PLEASE LEAVE JEKYLL ISLAND ALONE! It is beautiful and should not be ruined by building more buildings and destroying the Wet Lands. It is so peaceful as is. Don’t try making more money by greed and destroying the peacefulness.

Joy Vannerson

May 10th, 2013
5:04 pm

I’m one of those rare Florida natives. Growing up near the Miami River in the 40s and 50s, I saw a more balanced environment replaced by “improvements” that irreversibly unbalanced and changed the natural systems and beauty of south Florida.
I’ve explored nearly all the Florida and Georgia Atlantic coasts, and Jekyll is the only public place that provides easily accessible recreation, historic preservation, environmental education and lodging while respecting the very real value of natural places.
Asphalt-lined pillars of concrete border much of the beach of our southeast coast. Jekyll is an oasis that allows nature to flourish and humans to partake. To alter this balance with increased development is simply the wrong thing to do. It is wrong morally and economically. Jekyll Island, owned by all Georgia citizens, is a treasure to be preserved and cherished not “improved.” The 2000 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan will cost nearly $10.5 billion, take 35 years, and will not actually restore the ecological system that a few generations destroyed through mistaken development. Don’t waste our money or destroy our beloved Jekyll through mistaken development.

Claire DeLand

May 10th, 2013
4:51 pm

Leave Jekyll alone!!! Sure, it’s showing some age in some of its buildings, etc., and the hotels could certainly use some remodeling in some cases, but the Island has HUGE appeal to thousands of visitors just like it is, and the best thing is, families of “ordinary” means can afford to go there . . .

It is greed and avarice that is making people see Jekyll through dollar sign covered glasses, and it’s pretty obscene. Families still need a place to go that is affordable and close-by, especially with gas prices in the stratosphere.

The appeal of Jekyll to REGULAR visitors has always been, and is now, the pristine nature of the island and the UNDEVELOPED feel to much of the island. If people want luxury accommodations they have plenty to choose from on St. Simons, and, worst of all, Sea Island. There is the potential for enormous negative impact to the Sea Turtles that nest on Jekyll’s shores year after year, as well as the still-endangered Wood Storks, not to mention many endangered plant species. We do NOT have the right to do what will willfully so adversely impact the ecosystem. There ARE people who have some excellent visions and plans for using the natural environment of both the island itself and the marshes – - – - plans which would protect them, not exploit them, and which would bring in substantial amounts of income for the island.

If somebody wants to investigate something, spend some time investigating the Jekyll Island Authority and the damage Sonny Perdue did, not only to Jekyll but also to other parts of the state (ex: the killing of the deal that would have brought Cabela’s to Adairsville, GA several years back. It was a done deal except for a few details that needed to be ironed out, and the signs were up all over town welcoming Cabela’s to Adairsville . . . there were waiting lists for employment interviews, and it all went away very suddenly right after Perdue’s election for a second term.

The Jekyll Island Authority, with the right make-up, could do so much to help Jekyll’s appeal . . . there are beach walk-overs with missing steps . . . the dredging of the Brunswick River is causing horrible erosion especially on the north end of the island . . . the hotels need refurbishing and, in the place of two of them which have been torn down, replacing ON THE SAME FOOTPRINT . . . the water park would benefit from some upgrades and refurbishing . . . making the business environment friendly to good medium-priced restaurants would help . . . . the list goes on and on.

They’ve ruined the approach to the island with that monstrosity of a Convention Center . . . please – - – - SOMEBODY – - – - do something to stop the carnage before it’s too late..

Vicki Cooper

May 10th, 2013
4:24 pm

In it’s present 65/35 state, Jekyll represents a balance, somewhere between the more developed Tybee and St. Simon’s Islands, the limited access barrier islands of Sapelo and Cumberland, and private islands of St. Catherine’s, and Ossabaw Islands. The JIA may be thinking if we build it they will come. Well, they already do come to the developed areas of SSI, Tybee, and just up the road in South Carolina, to Hilton Head island. Jekyll Island is different.
With Mid century homes, a Historical District, the South End , and the North Beach and Pier areas, Jekyll offers a throwback to something that is almost impossible to find. It slows people down. We find places to breathe. To just be. Let’s see if we can manage to think of something different, and focus on creatively working within existing 65/35 limits. Solicit new ideas, use what you have, innovate….it’s what the rest of us do every day. Show respect for the laws and guidelines, and limits that are in effect and established.
Consider also that perhaps this is far more than just a debate about how to define and develop a parcel of land. We already have an overabundance of powerful people who creatively facilitate “end runs” to get around obstacles in order to get what they want. Ultimately, it is through our actions as adults and community leaders, through the examples we set, that we teach our children. Perhaps that is a consideration here as well. Sometimes, even if we want more, accepting limits and deciding how to “make do” is the right thing, and that it can work just as well. It can be challenging, it is not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.


May 10th, 2013
4:17 pm

When so-called “governor” Sonny Perdue pulled Ed Boshears off the JIA, I knew things would get nasty. Boshears once called Perdue “a snake”. I don’t see the Deal regime any differently.

It’s ALL about politics. It’s ALL about who’s friends with whom. We didn’t need to screw up the entranceway with that eyesore of a “convention center”, nor did we need to destroy a perfectly good shopping center in the process. Nor did we need to bring in a corporate convenience store and trash the old gas station. Nor did we need to lose the IGA grocery store, which was the only way to get groceries on the island. Anybody who has a store in those trailers had to pay for those themselves. This does nothing but hurt the economy…which is probably what “they” wanted in the first place.

Now, here we are in 2013, and nothing’s really improved. I liked things just the way they were. Hopefully Senator Chapman will continue to fight the good fight, and even though I don’t vote republikan, perhaps there is middle ground we can reach. Had the vote gone in favor of Roy Barnes, or even David Poythress, perhaps we wouldn’t be expressing our disgust over this issue right now, we’d be enjoying our beloved Island.

This entire BS about what is/is not 65/35%, is a total crock. Those who are in “charge” have totally lost their minds, as if they ever had one. Marsh land is not stable enough, and we certainly don’t need, or want, hotels and as rumor once had it, CASINOS….yes you heard right….all molesting the gorgeous landscape that makes Jekyll what it is. Yet, at the same time, Jekyll’s amphitheater remains a ghost town, a relic of bygone times. Let’s either restore THAT, or return the land to natural status. In other words, let’s quit the BS, and do something to benefit the ecosystem. Oh wait, that sounds like a liberal word !!!