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Jekyll Island personality may be split

The Georgia isle has been home to wildlife and common folk. Developers want to bring out another side.

February 18, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

JEKYLL ISLAND, GA. — For centuries, turtles, pelicans, snakes and songbirds have inhabited the southern shore of Jekyll Island, where golden sand meets thick shrub dunes and forests of live oaks laced with Spanish moss.

Yet this serene spot, the most remote corner of this state-owned island, could soon host an altogether different kind of resident -- one with enough wealth to purchase a $750,000 home in an upscale subdivision.

Developers are clamoring to upgrade Georgia's smallest barrier island, home to a small population of retirees and a large stock of faded 1960s-era architecture.

By law, the island must remain 65% undeveloped and be accessible to people of "average income," but the authority that manages the island has begun looking for ways to redevelop it.

"The opportunity at Jekyll Island surpasses that of the entire eastern coast of the United States," claims a glossy brochure outlining developer Wade Shealy's proposed master plan for the island.

Coastal Georgia, which has for decades been protected by strict environmental laws, is one of the last battlegrounds for development on the Eastern Seaboard: The neighboring shorelines of Florida and South Carolina have already been heavily developed with high-rise condominiums and hotels.

By 2030, the population of the Georgia coast will swell by 50%, according to a recent study by the Center for Quality Growth & Regional Development at Georgia Tech.

Biologists and environmentalists fear that poor planning and large-scale construction could forever alter what is the largest remaining expanse of salt marsh on the East Coast. It could also threaten endangered species such as loggerhead turtles, wood storks and northern right whales.

"It's a gold rush mentality," said Christopher DeScherer, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has successfully challenged several recent permits Georgia has given to developers up and down the coast -- including Cumberland Harbour, a 1,012-acre luxury gated subdivision overlooking the federal park of Cumberland Island.

"Part of the state's job is to protect the coastal marshes, but the state appears to be unwilling to do that," DeScherer said.

For decades, Georgia's 100-mile coast avoided the scattershot construction that spread across most of the East Coast -- in part because the land is marshy and many miles away from major cities, but also because Georgia enacted environmentally friendly laws.

Pioneering Georgia ecologist Eugene Odum worked tirelessly in the 1960s and 1970s to convince locals of the environmental and economic value of the state's undeveloped wetlands. In 1970, the state Legislature passed the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, which gave the state control of tidal marshes, recognizing them as a nursery for significant wildlife species and a buffer against flooding and erosion.

The state-appointed Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee is responsible for exercising that control. A series of Georgia courts have challenged recent permits issued by the committee, ruling that it has been too narrow in interpreting the impact of large-scale development and needs to take into account the overall effect on the salt marsh ecosystem. The committee asked the Georgia Court of Appeals to intervene in the Cumberland Harbour permit case. A ruling is expected later this year.

Meanwhile, Georgia lawmakers are discussing whether to introduce legislation to give the Jekyll Island Authority more control to develop the 7.5-mile island, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway. Republican lawmakers have already introduced a bill that would allow more leeway on the island's development by creating an oversight committee that would review all lease proposals.

The week before last, state Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat, filed a measure to preserve Jekyll Island as a resort for average residents. And last month, more than 50 Jekyll residents chartered a bus to Atlanta to attend a Jekyll Island Authority board meeting to voice their concern about the plan to find a private-sector developer for the island.

Yet with occupancy of the island's hotels declining by 2% a year, and about $50 million in deferred maintenance projects, Bill Donohue, executive director of the authority, said the island was not generating enough revenue.

Though most residents acknowledge that the island's hotels, restaurants and strip mall are shabby and outmoded, they fear that developers will use renovation as an excuse for more-extensive construction.

"The developers are thinking, 'Wahoo! Off we go,' " said Jean Poleszak, 78, who has lived on Jekyll Island for 24 years. "They want it to be big and developed and rah-rah-rah. But it's very valuable just as it is."

Edward Boshears, the Jekyll Island Authority's secretary and a former state senator from nearby St. Simons Island, believes Jekyll should remain a vacation spot that is affordable for "bus drivers, church groups and public employees."

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