Storm brewing over Jekyll Island development

The Jekyll Island Authority, which runs the state park off Georgia’s southeastern coast beloved by generations of Atlantans, is embroiled in a standoff with a task force it created to determine if the island will have room for future development.

Yet another lengthy and contentious battle over the island’s growth, between the authority on one side and residents and environmentalists on the other, is threatened. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned this week that the spat has quietly reached the state Attorney General’s office.

The dispute revolves around this: What is land? Can marshland — the soggy, but environmentally critical grassy zone between land and water — be considered land?

The stakes for the state park, which attracted 1.2 million visitors last year to the most pristine and accessible beaches in Georgia, are huge. State law restricts the amount of property Jekyll can develop to 35 percent of its land mass. A so-called 65/35 task force was charged by the authority last April with helping to determine what is land and what is marsh.

The task force concluded that no marshland should be included in tallying the island’s land mass, a recommendation that could greatly restrict the future construction of hotels and condos.

The authority disputes the task force recommendations and has asked for the AG’s office to weigh in on the matter. Environmentalists fear that the AG’s ruling would set a precedent allowing developers up and down the coast to include marshland in development projects.

It’s not as if the authority, which by law must keep the state park affordable for “average Georgians,” wants to build a condo tower on tidal marsh. But the authority hopes to include hundreds of acres of marsh in the island’s total land mass, opening proportionately more land in the future to develop. And that has opponents fuming.

"If marsh can be counted as land, then that has major implications in terms of how far development can go," said David Egan, co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, a residents group. "Who knows what the island would look like in a half century?"

The authority and its critics have been involved in a decade-long struggle to remake Jekyll into a more appealing tourist destination while safeguarding its environmental and economical attributes.

Eric Garvey, spokesman for Jekyll, said the authority wants the master plan to clarify what land is available for future development while remaining within the 65/35 constricts. Current development plans for hotels and a retail district would not be affected by the new calculations.

“It comes down to what you want to measure and how you want to measure it. That’s still a question being worked on,” he said. “The master plan is not at all about finding new development opportunities. We look at the existing hotel sites we have and wonder how we can get those done.”

In 2007, a Georgia developer proposed a $352 million, hotel, condo and time-share project that rankled many island residents. But the project died during the recession and the authority has since tried to develop the commercial-hotel district in a piecemeal fashion.

A $36 million state-financed convention center opened last May. But two announced hotel projects remain stalled. A third developer pays $330,000 a year to lease two beachfront sites in the hopes that one day, Jekyll will prove a viable investment.

Doubt and mistrust swirl around efforts to measure how much land the authority can develop on Jekyll.

By law, 65 percent of Jekyll “that lies above water at mean high tide” must remain untouched by hotels, houses, golf courses or any other development. So, last year the authority selected a panel of state officials, environmentalists, academics and others to determine precisely how much of the island had already been developed.

The task force, which released its final recommendations last month, determined that 38.6 percent of Jekyll — more than the 35 percent allowed for by law — had already been set aside 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. While nobody has suggested returning the developed land to an un-developed state, the task force wanted to make clear what would be acceptable in the future.

They turned to the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, a law established in 1970 to protect 378,000 acres of salt marsh along Georgia’s coast. The marsh nourishes fish and shellfish, filters polluted water and protects the mainland from storms.

The act details the distinction between tidal marsh and land. The task force voted to prohibit using any marsh between the mean high tide mark and dry land for development. It calculated the island’s land mass at 3,817 acres.

The authority suggests the island’s land mass is 5,543 acres, which would allow a few hundred acres to be added to the developable land mix.

“They cannot develop additional, new acres that have not already been developed before,” said Steven Caley, an attorney with Atlanta-based GreenLaw, an environmental law firm that represents the Jekyll Island citizens group. “They’ve torn down a lot of old hotels and are sprucing up the island. They can still do that. They just can’t go out and take more prime beachfront property that’s never been developed before and start putting condos on it.”

The authority has asked the Attorney General to review the task force’s findings, which are non-binding. The authority, in a note to the AG’s office obtained by the AJC, writes that the recommendations are “not in compliance” with state law and that “task force members chose to utilize methods that eliminated all marsh from island calculations and establish their own interpretation.”

Lauren Kane, spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens, declined comment.

Environmentalists fear that if the AG sides with the authority, it would open up the marshland protection law to legal challenges from developers who would argue that now-protected marsh can be developed. The act says marsh meets land — and can’t be developed — at a height of 4.89 feet above sea level. The authority says for Jekyll, it could begin at 3.3 feet. Tens of thousands of acres of Georgia marshland lie between the two measurements.

“It would be challenged on a case-by-case basis and there would be a definite risk of losing legal ground for protecting the marshes,” said David Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast on St. Simons Island.