Thursday, August 2, 2007

Jekyll Island Threatened by Upscale Development

Jekyll Island Threatened by Upscale Development
by Cima Star

The moment I heard, a few weeks ago, of the plan afoot to allow luxury condos to be built on Jekyll Island, I flashbacked 20 years to Miami Beach.
For ten years, I watched the best coastline of South Florida systematically devoured and destroyed by developers of luxury, sky-studding condos and high-rise hotels.

A decade later, I walked out to that same section of beach (one of only a few left with public access) for my last visit. I stayed for five minute. Jammed with hundreds of people, the air smelled of suntan lotion; the water was oily. Boom boxes deafened. I said a sad goodbye to the beach I’d loved, and knew I would never return. Identical destruction had ruined the coastline from the southern tip of the island all the way to Fort Lauderdale. Miles of high rises blocked the view of the ocean from anyone but the insulated inhabitants of those buildings, who could gaze down upon the ocean from a distance. All had huge private swimming pools for folks who eschewed sand and salt and wind. On moving to Savannah in 1995, I rediscovered unfettered coastlines and miles of lush marshlands.

The first time I turned off the Causeway to enter the untrammeled world of Jekyll Island, I sensed an oasis of tranquility and history. Only an hour and a half from Savannah, this 5,000-acre barrier island combines a rare mixture of raw, lush, natural beauty, and in one small section, the sophisticated pampering of a world-class resort.

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel has its roots in the 1880’s, when a handful of the world’s richest powerbrokers purchased the island and made it their winter home, forming the Jekyll Island Club.

Their goal for these wintertime sojourns, historians say, was to embrace the “simple life.” Nonetheless, they arrived complete with butlers, maids, valets, and a host of other servants.

Among the founding members were J. P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Joseph Pulitzer and Marshall Field. The membership possessed one-sixth of the wealth of the entire world. They built the club, and then a colony of little “cottages,” many of them in the 7 to 8,000 square foot range, for their friends and families to purchase. The names still ring: Astor, Macy, Goodyear, Gould. The Club and the adjacent six-unit apartment building, the cottages and grounds, were lavished with the ultimate luxuries that money could buy.

Under the leadership of these men, history was often made. President McKinley drafted his 1899 reelection plans; the Federal Reserve Act was written and drafted on Jekyll in 1910 and in 1915, the first trans-continental telephone calls were placed from the island to President Woodrow Wilson in Washington D.C., to Alexander Graham Bell in New York, and to Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson in San Francisco, California.

But membership dwindled somewhat during the Great Depression. And then, during World War II, the Roosevelt administration asked all of the members to leave the island for the duration of the war because the president felt that so much wealth and power concentrated in so small a space was too vulnerable to attack.

For whatever reason, the membership never returned and the island was sold to the state in 1947. In 1950, Georgia passed a state law limiting development of Jekyll to only 35 percent of the land; the remaining 65 percent to remain a nature preserve for future generations to enjoy. It was not until 1985 that serious restoration of this magnificent palace was begun.

Today, the Jekyll Island Hotel has all the luxury and comfort intended by the original owners, and much they couldn’t have imagined.

Furnishings are elegant; service is splendid. Dining, from the casual Beach Pavilion to the breathtaking Grand Dining Room offers some of the finest food in the South. And just as in the late 1800’s, guests may have beverage service in any of the public areas, porches or courtyard. At the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, the guests remain pampered royalty.

Yet, nearby, throughout the 65 percent of the island designated as a preserve, nature reigns supreme. Sea Turtles abound here. From May through August, after nightfall, female Loggerheads swim ashore and make their way across the sand, digging their nests to lay 80 to 100 eggs. The Jekyll Island Turtle Project ensures that nature’s routine is undisturbed. Bird watchers nationwide come to Jekyll, one of 18 sites along the Colonial Coast Bird Watching Trail. In addition to abundant year round populations, Jekyll serves as a resting place in the spring and fall for migrating species on the Atlantic Flyway. Guided nature walks offer year round information on Georgia’s coastal environment and, from a distance, you can often see deer, wild turkey, raccoons, hawks, egrets, herons and wild alligators.

Seashell fanciers can wile away many hours perusing the fascinating array of shells on Jekyll’s beaches. Highly polished “olives” and whelks abound. For camping, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, shelling or bird watching, Jekyll Island offers it all in a near-primal setting.

Meanwhile, the deadly drumbeat of developers continues.

The 35 percent of the island that was originally designated as open to development was to be restricted to sites suitable for low to middle income people so that everyone, not just the rich, could enjoy this pastoral beauty. Now, one developer is reported to plan to replace the soccer fields and ecology center with approximately 90 townhouses and condos, starting at $750,000. It doesn’t take much imagination to know what the inhabitants of these places will demand as neighboring amenities. It certainly won’t be facilities aimed at the working class.

Those proponents of development point to the shabbiness of the handful of inexpensive hotels, motels and small eateries and shops on the island. However, plans are already in place to refurbish and upgrade these establishments over the next decade. Approximately $200 million has been designated for this plan. Most local residents and the campers and hikers and day visitors so fond of an unspoiled Jekyll say this is sufficient.

“Jekyll Island doesn’t need any more upscale glitz than it has in the Jekyll Island Hotel,” says a frequent hiking and biking visitor.

“Folks who want more can go to the mob scene on St. Simon’s Island.”
--photos by J. Star

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