Attorney General says Jekyll has room to grow

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens ruled Thursday against environmentalists and Jekyll Island residents who seek to limit development on the state park beloved by generations of Atlantans.

Olens, in essence, said that marshland — the soggy, but environmentally important zone between land and water — is indeed land.

The ruling, a victory for the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA), will have little impact in the near-term. No new, major commercial or residential developments are planned. And Jekyll officials say they’ve no intention of seeking changes to the law that prohibits development on 65 percent of the island’s land mass.

“The Jekyll Island Authority respects the 65-35 law limiting development and appreciates the clarity provided by the Attorney General,” said Eric Garvey, the authority spokesman. “Right now, there are no plans for any new development.”

But Olen’s opinion leaves the door open for future development perhaps when the under-construction hotels and retail district are completed and other developers consider projects on the barrier island 300 miles southeast of Atlanta.

“We are disappointed with the Attorney General’s opinion, which equates ‘marsh’ with ‘land,’” said Steven Caley, an attorney with Atlanta-based GreenLaw, an environmental law firm that represents the Jekyll Island citizens group. “Simply put, marsh is not land.”

Caley would not rule out a lawsuit challenging Olen’s ruling.

Thursday’s decision is just the latest in a long series of disputes between conservationists and the island’s governing authority. The JIA is in the process of updating the state park’s master plan. It created a so-called 65/35 task force last year to help determine what precisely is land and and what precisely is marsh.

The task force concluded that no marshland should be included when tallying the island’s land mass, a recommendation that would greatly restrict the availability of land for the future construction of hotels, condos and shops. Unhappy with its task force’s suggestions, the JIA asked the attorney general last April to weigh in.

The crux of the dispute boils down to how many acres remain available for development.

The current master plan, approved in 1996, erroneously allowed the authority to set aside too much developable land, roughly 135 acres, the task force concluded. Nobody suggests returning the developed land to an undeveloped state. But the task force wanted to make clear what would be acceptable in the future and based its conclusions on the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act.

The act details the distinction between land and marsh, the buffer zone that nourishes fish and shellfish and filters polluted water. The task force voted to prohibit development between the mean high tide mark and dry land. It then calculated the island’s land mass at 3,817 acres.

The JIA disagreed, placing the island’s land mass at 5,543 acres, which would allow 600 acres to be added to the developable land mix. Olens, on Thursday, sided with the authority by allowing marsh above mean high tide to be included in the island’s overall land mass.

“We found that the task force recommendation was inconsistent with state statute because it seeks to exclude marshland from land,” Olens said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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