Georgia’s citizens have been kept in the dark regarding two troubling occurrences related to the ongoing update of the Jekyll Island State Park Master Plan:
1. Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) senior staff and legal counsel have urged the state attorney general to classify tidal marshes above mean high tide as “land” in calculating the island’s area, directly contradicting recommendations of a JIA-appointed task force that was charged with studying the Jekyll land area issue.
2. JIA’s proposal to define the high marsh as “land” was sent to the attorney general without either the task force or the master plan steering committee knowing about it.
The covert request filed by JIA with the attorney general, if honored, would result in some 500 additional acres of Jekyll’s upland being made eligible for development because the official area of the island would appear to be much larger.
According to state law, all development on Jekyll must remain within 35 percent of the island’s land area. According to the task force, Jekyll’s development is already above that limit, now at some 38 percent. If those findings hold, all future development and redevelopment projects must occur within the existing developed areas of the island.
For JIA to secure a more expansive boundary and gain additional acreage eligible for development, the attorney general would have to rule that the vast salt marsh that is above mean high tide is actually “land.”
If JIA has its way in legally defining Jekyll’s “land area” as all areas above mean high tide, nearly 1,700 acres of high tidal marsh would be instantly — and wrongly — deemed to be “land.”
Such a ruling by the attorney general would not only contradict logic and extensive state and federal law, but it could open the way for loss of legal marsh protections throughout coastal Georgia, as others seek similar exemptions.
Several environmental attorneys have concurred that if a ruling by the state attorney general favors JIA’s wish for a larger island boundary for development purposes, thousands of acres of high marsh along Georgia’s coast could be put in jeopardy.
Similar risks could threaten the 25-foot marsh buffer that is critical to safeguarding Georgia’s tidal marshes — again having serious adverse consequences throughout the six coastal counties.
Such risks must be prevented for the sake of our coastal marshlands, which are an invaluable natural resource held in public trust for the people of Georgia and vital to the area’s quality of life.
I urge all who are concerned about this important issue to voice their views by writing Gov. Nathan Deal and ask him to retain all tidal marshes as “waters of the state,” distinct from land and not within Jekyll Island’s official boundary.
Kyler is the executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast.