Homes on ‘spit’ bring strife to Sea Island


A battle royale pitting new money against old rages over development on Sea Island. Log on to www.MyAJC.com Saturday for details of the upper-crust kerfuffle.

Read more about Sea Island's history and tangled finances and see more photos at www.MyAJC.com.

Jane Fulcher minces no words when pronouncing the fate of her coastal sanctuary beloved by generations of well-to-do Atlantans.

“The old Sea Island,” she said, “is truly dead.”

It’s not just the eight super-expensive homes planned for a sliver of beachfront called “the spit” that so bothers Fulcher, though that’s a big part of it. Nor is it the hedge-fund Northerners who now own the private enclave and, according to long-timers, are nickel-and-diming residents and visitors. No, Fulcher’s lament is more visceral, a queasy feeling that an old friend is slipping away with the tide.

Sea Island Acquisition (SIA) expects to soon market the eight lots, currently covered by sand dunes and windswept pine, on the pristine stretch of beach that residents hoped would remain unscathed into perpetuity.

Called The Cloister Reserve, the proposed development is the latest point of contention for an island that now trends toward New York nouveau riche over old Atlanta money.

“They say it takes a while to lose your reputation, but with the development on the spit, Sea Island’s reputation is going fast,” said Fulcher, whose father and uncle started the Genuine Parts Company, a Fortune 500 stalwart in Cobb County. She called the spit development plan “kind of the last straw.”

Disagreements among the Sea Island swells — most visitors still hail from Atlanta — usually play out privately behind the cloistered walls of the gated community.

But the spat over the spit has engendered electronic billboards, a website, T-shirts (“Save the Spit”), dueling newspaper ads and caustic references to the “hedge fund managers from up north.”

Sea Island owner SIA, a limited partnership of four global investment firms based in New York, Los Angeles and beyond, bought Sea Island out of bankruptcy in 2010. The firm insists development of the spit won’t unduly harm the environment and that the Sea Island brand remains sacrosanct.

“We don’t intend to dramatically change the island in the least,” said Scott Steilen, the company’s president. “We are trying to create more awareness for Sea Island and generate more resort revenue (but) the core focus for Sea Island has always been a family destination and, quite frankly, we don’t see any reason to change that.”

Moss-draped serenity

Sea Island, a mix of pricey homes and condos, high-dollar hotels and golf courses, has long been privately owned. Roughly 1,800 members belong to the Sea Island Club. A mile-long causeway connects gated Sea Island to St. Simons Island along Georgia’s coast near Brunswick.

Ironically, a Northern industrialist in 1926 began the transformation of an old cotton plantation into one of the nation’s most exclusive resorts. Moss-draped serenity and high-dollar exclusivity attracted presidents (Coolidge, Carter, Bush I and II), movie stars (James Stewart, Lillian Gish) and business titans (Bill Gates).

Generations of well-off Georgians filled the Moorish-style Cloister Hotel or bought million-dollar homes along the five-mile long barrier island. They’d walk barefoot through the Cloister carrying crab traps or coolers of beer. A visitor might leave a sailboat tucked behind the dunes in place for next summer’s return. The same families, year after year, would take turns hosting August cocktail parties.

“For people who’ve been going down there for a long time, there was a certain feel to the place,” said Ken Henson Jr., a Columbus attorney with a four-decade Sea Island history and a vacation home on 19th Street. He said the Jones family, longtime owners, “was nice, kind and gracious to everyone. Sally Jones even took cupcakes to my mother on her birthday.”

Bill Jones III, the third generation scion of Sea Island, sought to turn the resort into another Palm Beach, a gold-plated playground for the jet-set crowd. In 2001, The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, with personal butlers, massage therapists and Irish bed linens, opened on St. Simons.

The Cloister was rebuilt for $350 million with rooms fetching $700 a night. A new Beach Club opened. Big-dollar golf and horse communities were planned for St. Simons and Camden County just down the coast.
Jones envisioned hotel-condo resorts carrying the Sea Island or Cloister brand in Atlanta, North Carolina and Tennessee. He even considered furniture and clothing lines.
The Great Recession capsized his plan. In 2008, the company laid off one-fourth of its workers. Two years later, with more than $1 billion in debt, Sea Island declared bankruptcy. Hedge fund and distressed property investors paid $212 million for the Cloister, Lodge, four golf courses and other properties, and formed SIA.
The new crowd soon rubbed many of the old crowd the wrong way. Bigger, brasher homes — as much as 13,000 square feet — with high walls were built blocking the ocean or marsh.
Earlier this month, the company announced that the island’s post office will be demolished to make room for a $40-plus million Cloister expansion. SIA will handle local postal services and may charge residents “a premium over the face value of stamps or mailing services,” according to the company.
Fulcher, the Genuine Parts heiress with a Sea Island home, complains that the new owners are “nickle-and-diming” residents. Her monthly membership dues, which allow access to the beach club and spa, have risen nearly $200 since 2012. Steilen counters that the once-bankrupt company “needs to be profitable … which means we have to grow revenue.”
Nothing, though, so riles the old-money crowd as The Cloister Reserve.

Low-density plan

The spit was nearly deserted during a recent, late-afternoon stroll except for thousands of shore birds making a concerted ruckus. Horse hooves, turtle tracks and jogger prints dotted the sand beyond the tide’s surge.

SIA plans eight home sites on 7.3 acres along the peninsula’s northernmost section bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Black Banks River. The remaining 80 acres will remain untouched, it says, with no plans for development.

The Glynn County Commission could block the plan, but hasn’t scheduled a public hearing on the spit to the consternation of environmentalists.

Steilen defends the project as a low-density way to get value for land with spectacular views on each side.

“We could’ve put more hotel rooms and condos out there, but we just felt it was more appropriate to create a more exclusive lot project that makes good use of the land,” Steilen said.

Environmentalists argue that the beach all but disappears at high tide and that development will hasten erosion.

“It’s the worst development proposal I’ve ever seen and it feels like they’re exploiting the natural assets of Georgia every way they can,” said former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard who heads the Georgia Conservancy and observes Snowy Owls, Whimbrels and Reddish Egrets on the spit. “People don’t come to look at mega-mansions, but the natural beauty of the coast. The owners — the Coney Island crowd — are destroying the Sea Island brand.”
Since 2003, the beach alongside the planned development has shrunk by 108 feet — a rate more than double the mean erosion rate, said Chester Jackson Jr., a Georgia Southern assistant professor of geology who studies beach erosion. The spit is the only spot on Sea Island ineligible for federal flood insurance.
“We think that erosion is accelerating now,” Jackson said. “And I can say with a pretty high level of confidence that we would anticipate the barrier continuing to thin out.”
Sea Island officials say erosion concerns are overblown. Steilen also cited property rights as a possible legal tool. And supporters decry ad hominem attacks on Sea Island’s new owners.

"They are characterized as being owned and operated by out of state hedge funds that have no regard for this community or our environment," Daniel Veal, a St. Simons resident who does business with Sea Island, wrote in a recent ad in the Brunswick News. "However, I have seen firsthand that the character and ideals that have helped guide Sea Island since the 1920's are still intact."

Fulcher says the new-money-versus-old squabble has already damaged the Sea Island brand.

"I guess you could say, 'Who cares about Sea Island?" she said wistfully, " 'It's just a bunch of rich people.' "