School is out, vacations have started, and visitors from across the country are driving to one of the state’s great coastal attractions, Jekyll Island.
What will they see when they arrive? A barrier island where the marshes, dunes, beaches and sea turtle nesting areas that evoke Jekyll’s natural beauty are properly protected? Or will they encounter a beachfront jammed full of junky development like Panama City or Myrtle Beach?
There is an interesting debate over which of those scenarios will play out for Jekyll Island — a debate that heavily involves basic math and common sense.
The Jekyll Island Authority, which oversees the management of the state-owned island, appointed a citizens task force as part of the process of revising its master plan for future development.
A 1971 state law specifies that developed acreage can comprise “not more than 35 percent of the land area of Jekyll Island which lies above water at mean high tide.”
The authority has contended that Jekyll covers 5,543 acres of land and is 32 percent developed, which would leave 166 acres legally available for new development and construction.
The task force, however, determined the island’s area to be just 3,817 acres because a large swath of marshlands cannot be built upon and should not be included in the calculation. They concluded that 38.6 percent of the island — 136 acres above the 35 percent threshold — has already been developed.
That was obviously not what the authority staff wanted to hear. It asked the attorney general’s office to rule that the task force recommendations did not comply with the state law establishing the 35 percent limit. Attorney General Sam Olens to date has not issued a response.
“It is important to set the limit so that the Jekyll Island Authority can move forward with a long-term plan — so that we know the parcels we’re intending to redevelop are in concert with that plan,” said Eric Garvey, the authority spokesman.
Environmentalists and conservation groups have sided with the task force conclusion that Jekyll Island has already exceeded its limit for development. It’s a safe bet that one or more of those organizations will sue the authority if it tries to expand the number of acres to be developed.
“We’d prefer to stay out of court, but a lawsuit is one of the options we would consider,” said Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, a former state legislator who is executive director of the environmental law firm GreenLaw.
Even if you accept the premise that 38.6 percent of Jekyll is already developed, no one is demanding that the authority terminate any current developments. Environmentalists note that there are numerous parcels of property, such as vacant hotel sites, that are already classified as developed and could be used for redevelopment.
“There hasn’t been any encroachment into undeveloped land since that law was enacted (in 1971),” Garvey said. “We’re working within the existing footprint as far as parcels of developed property are concerned.”
The state law is clear in how far development of Jekyll can go: 35 percent of the land that makes up the island. Where the law is not specific is in how you define what constitutes “land” and whether coastal marshes should be figured into property area calculations.
In a situation like this, you would normally try to determine what the legislative intent was when the law was enacted. That’s not so easy to do when you are dealing with measures that were debated and adopted more than 40 years ago.
Ogden Doremus, the former legislator who was instrumental in the passage of the coastal marshlands protection act from that era, died several years ago.
Mike Egan, an Atlanta attorney and a retired Republican lawmaker, was one of the legislators involved in drafting the law that limits Jekyll Island development and is still around to talk about it.
“I thought we made it clear in the act, but I guess that we did not,” Egan told Associated Press reporter Russ Bynum. “I just think that land is dry land, not marsh.”
What Egan is saying seems to be a matter of common sense and simple logic. Perhaps the attorney general will come to that same conclusion — but he has been reluctant to say anything so far.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com.