The success of any planned development can depend on the attention given to details. The Waterways marina plan proposed by Mr. Paul Fletcher is no exception. The offer to share the facility with the public is very enticing but the devil is in the details.
As a lifetime resident of this coast, a boater, and, a wacky environmentalist, I strongly support increasing desperately needed public access to our coastal waters. Closure of the Demere Creek ramp accentuates that problem. The Demere ramp actually has been less of a boat ramp and more of a survival training course for years. It was suggested that the brave souls who tested their courage and their equipment on the Demere ramp pull their boats south to Sunbury in Liberty County or to Ft. McAllister Marina on the Ogeechee. You can only appreciate the absurdity of those suggestions if you own a boat. It’s a two hour plus run by boat from the Ogeechee to the waters accessed by the Demere ramp.
With the closure of the Demere Creek ramp, the southern coastal waters of Bryan County are no longer accessible from a Bryan County ramp. Pulling a boat round trip down I-95 and over to Sunbury rather than a mile or two down to the Demere ramp is a poor option. The Sunbury ramp is as much as an 80 mile round trip depending on where you live in South Bryan County. Of course there is the ramp off Belfast Siding Road. Way off! All you need is a four wheel drive vehicle and a canoe because you are probably not going to make the turns on that swamp road with anything much bigger.
Mr. Paul Fletcher wants to create a marine facility that will belong to a private, gated community but allow public access. Touting public access to coastal waters makes a strong argument. Free public access is the brass ring. However, "Free" always concerns me.
A recent newspaper article suggested that the Coastal Estuary Protection Association (CEPA) was in favor of the project as per comments by our president Allen Davis. It is true that Mr. Fletcher visited with Mr. Davis and discussed the project at length. Allen’s position on the matter speaks well of the project. Mr. Fletcher’s efforts and his recognition of our organization are sincerely appreciated but neither the CEPA Board nor the membership has discussed the issue as a group. At this point in time no one can say what the position of the CEPA membership is, regarding this particular project, or that they will ever collectively have one.
There are some concerns. Intrusion into the marsh at Mr. Fletcher’s construction site is controlled by special restrictions. Concerns have been raised by the Coastal Marshland Protection Committee and the Coastal Marshland Protection Act of 1970 in its revised form. Most coastal residents are not familiar with that particular committee and the guidelines under which they operate. There is no representation from Bryan County in this group that I know of. That needs to be corrected.As I understand it, if the land is to be used for public recreation then the restrictions are eased. This is the incentive for Mr. Fletcher’s invitation to the Bryan County Commission to join him in a joint public/private enterprise. Such an arrangement might be the only way he can develop the community and tie it to the water. There is nothing particularly wrong with that. Mr. Fletcher apparently has the professional respect and confidence of people who know him. It is understood that he is a man of his word and will produce a quality development. On the other hand, the marshland is a developer’s elephant. They like having it around. It draws a crowd but they don’t want to feed it and care for it. They would rather kill it, eat it and show everybody a picture of what it used to look like. In many cases they are eating away at it one bite at a time. I am not suggesting that this particular plan fits that description. Quite the contrary, part of Mr. Fletcher’s plan references re-vitalization of marsh areas previously damaged. Removal of an existing dike which allows the return of tidal flow to a large section of marsh appears to be a necessity in the design of the project and becomes a consequential good thing as opposed to the usual collateral damage that occurs at a construction site. I said "appears to be".
Mr. Fletcher has apparently presented his case well to the Bryan County Commission. Even though the Commission generally has the confidence of the community to do the right thing, their application for a permit on behalf of the developer leaves room for concern and certainly for clarification. Even should the whole process be as pure as the driven snow, it still leaves a sense of impropriety or the potential for such, either before or after the fact.
There is the troubling absence of any legal documentation to support the concept of free and continued accessibility by the public. A contract between the county and the developer, which spells out the details of public use of the facility, should not just be a topic of conversation, but should be in place before any permit is issued. I would bet Mr. Fletcher would insist on it if the shoe were on the other foot.
There are concerns about the continued commitment of the future residents of that upscale, gated community. If you paid to live behind that gate would you be open to continuous non-discriminate public access? As the property builds out available space becomes more limited.
The community will eventually be run by a Board of Directors governed in their actions by bylaws and then covenants enforced by the State of Georgia. Do covenants exist and do they address this public/private co-op sharing of the marina facilities? Covenants containing verbiage addressing the specifics of public access to the marina should be part and parcel of the deal before any permits are issued based on joint public usage. Elimination of public access can be accomplished by a future Board of Directors making rules that control availability of space to the public by giving preferential treatment to property owners.
Mr. Fletcher has already gone to great lengths to present his project for approval by the proper authority, the Bryan County Commission and the DNR. However questions remain regarding the restrictions on development of this particular area and the question of continued public access over the years. Better notice needs to be given for the next public meeting. Better public attendance is needed. Visual aids such as flip charts, or slide presentation would be greatly appreciated. A picture is worth a thousand words. The Red Bird Creek plan is a complex and unique plan that can benefit the community at large. The coastal residents still deserve a clear explanation of all the devilish details.