Mired in a debate over how much room is left for future development on Jekyll Island, the state park's governing board has proposed a solution that would essentially scrap the state law that for 42 years has guaranteed its beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests remain vastly unspoiled.
Conservationists say the change in the law being pursued by the Jekyll Island Authority has merit. The authority plans to ask the Georgia Legislature to do away with the 1971 law restricting development of hotels, golf courses and other amenities to 35 percent of the island's land area.
The amended law would replace the percentage with a fixed acreage that total construction on Jekyll Island can't exceed.
"Going by the fixed acreage does away with the percentage calculations that have caused controversy over countless years," said Eric Garvey, spokesman for the Jekyll Island board. "The thinking was to put that to rest and focus on what everybody agrees on, which is how to preserve Jekyll Island."
The existing law mandating that 65 percent of the island remain undeveloped sounds simple enough.
But Jekyll Island staff and environmental groups have been debating for months exactly how large the island is and how it should be measured as they've worked on a new master plan that guides the coastal park's future conservation, maintenance and development. The last such plan as adopted 17 years ago.
Attorney General Sam Olens weighed in with a legal opinion June 27 that concluded a task force helping draft the plan was wrong to exclude marsh from Jekyll Island's total land area. Marshlands have been included in past calculations, and removing them would have shrunk the island's size — and therefore pushed its developed acreage above the 35 percent limit. Olens suggested the Legislature "could simply declare the size of the island or state precisely how much acreage is open to development."
A draft of the new master plan approved by the Jekyll Island board last Monday includes a recommendation for state lawmakers to limit total development to 1,675 acres. The draft says most of that acreage has already been used, and only 66 acres would remain open for future projects. Future commercial development would be restricted to an even smaller portion, just 20 acres.
"I'm supportive of going with the fixed acreage approach. It's simpler and it takes the marsh completely out of the picture," said David Egan, an island resident and co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. Egan also sat on the task force that sought to keep marsh out of the island's official land area.
Still, Jekyll Island officials are having trouble winning over their critics.
That's largely because the draft plan calculates the island's overall size as 5,530 acres — a whopping 31 percent larger than it was under the last master plan at 4,226 acres. The new plan measures Jekyll Island's outer boundary using a high-tide mark that's 1.7 feet lower than the one used the 1996.
That has Egan and other conservationists suspicious. If the Legislature fails to set a fixed acreage for development next year and the 35 percent rule is left intact, the larger land area would boost the amount of land open to construction on Jekyll Island to 326 acres. That's more than half a square a mile, and five times the acreage island officials say they need.
"Unfortunately there's a lot of speculation you have to do about what their motives are and what's really going on," said David Kyler, executive director of the Center For a Sustainable Coast.
Jekyll Island spokesman Garvey said he believes island officials would abide by the 66-acre limit for new development even if the Legislature doesn't change the law.
Georgia's attorney general in his June opinion urged Jekyll Island officials to refrain from taking any action that would "increase substantially" the island's overall acreage "until the General Assembly has been given the opportunity to weigh in." It's a point Olens makes twice in an eight-page letter.
Yet the Jekyll Island Authority Board plans a final vote in November. The Legislature won't reconvene until January.
A legislative oversight committee of six lawmakers will review the new plan before Jekyll Island officials vote, and Garvey said that should satisfy Olens' concern. A spokeswoman for the attorney general declined to comment.
Wealthy northern industrialists owned Jekyll Island and used it as a secluded winter getaway until 1947, when Georgia officials bought it and opened a state park there. Since 1971, the island's guiding conservation policy has been the state law mandating that 65 percent of the island remain undeveloped.
That hasn't been much of a problem. Jekyll Island's last master plan 1996 found that 108 acres remained open to new construction.
No new acreage was used in Jekyll Island's recent $50 million tourism makeover that included a new convention center and beachside park, with plans for two convention hotels and a retail village to soon follow. All of those amenities are being built on previously developed land where old construction was razed. In fact, Jekyll Island has cleared little undeveloped land for construction since its last homes and golf courses were built in the 1970s.
Rep. Alex Atwood, a Republican from neighboring Brunswick, sits on the Legislature's oversight committee for Jekyll Island and said he's heard from residents across the state concerned about the island's future. Atwood said he's open to setting a fixed acreage for future development, but insists the law must continue to state clearly that most of Jekyll Island is to remain unspoiled.
"Most folks are like me, they don't want to see a lot of acreage increasing for developable land," Atwood said. "I want to keep the vast majority of that precious jewel that we have, that one little entity in the coast of Georgia, protected and undeveloped."