Judge allows development on Sea Island “spit”

Sea Island can build a groin and replenish dunes to keep rising seas from harming a planned multi-million dollar housing development on a “spit” of land below the famed Cloister Hotel.

Administrative law judge Kristin Miller upheld Friday an earlier state ruling allowing construction of a 350-foot-long rock groin and a sand dune built with as much as 120,000 cubic yards of sand. The protections are intended to keep the Atlantic Ocean from destroying already threatened beachfront property where home lots are priced as high as $5.5 million.

The Sea Island Co. plans to build eight homes along the eight-acre slice of land.

“Weighed against Sea Island’s interest in protecting its valuable upland property, the modest adverse impacts of the permitted project are not unreasonable,” the law judge wrote in her 46-page opinion.

Environmental groups, who fear the surging seas will destroy the untrammeled “spit” and the groins will harm nesting sea turtles and other endangered species, were disappointed with Miller’s decision.

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“Permitting Sea Island to build this groin sets a dangerous precedent for those who enjoy Georgia’s unique coastal environment,” Steve Caley, legal director for GreenLaw, said in a statement. “It will be difficult under this decision to successfully oppose such projects in the future which will inevitably come down the pike with rising sea levels.”

Atlanta-based GreenLaw and other environmental groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and One Hundred Miles, haven’t determined their next legal steps. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also reviewing the permit application. The state’s Shore Protection Committee approved the project in December prompting the environmental groups to sue.

Sea Island, a favorite coastal retreat for well-heeled Atlantans, where suites at The Cloister run $1,000 a night, has begun selling lots — starting price: $3.5 million — for homes with unparalleled ocean views. Between 2003 and 2013, though, the beach alongside the planned development shrank by 108 feet — a rate more than double the mean erosion rate, according to a Georgia Southern University geologist.

The beach practically disappears at high tide. The spit is the only spot on Sea Island ineligible for federal flood insurance. Environmentalists also say groins and other coastal impediments cause sands to shift possibly impacting nearby St. Simons Island.

Judge Miller said the project will not unduly harm neighboring beaches, sea turtles or other wildlife.

“Sea Island has a responsibility to protect its property from continuing erosion by investing our own funds, using approved methods, and securing all required permits,” company president Scott Steilen said in a statement. “We hope to be able to move forward soon to construct the project.”

Environmentalists fear an ecologically dangerous precedent has been set.

“Smart planning is especially important in coastal areas already threatened by erosion and sea level rise, and allowing this poorly planned development to move forward would put Georgia’s coastline at risk,” Megan Hinkle, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.



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