Wednesday, November 14, 2007

11/7 - Chapman seeks review of upscale Jekyll plans

The Florida Times-Union
November 7, 2007
Times-Union Correspondent

BRUNSWICK - A state senator wants Georgia's attorney general to examine government plans to modernize Jekyll Island State Park with upscale development.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, whose district includes Jekyll Island, said he believes the island's governing body has violated laws which require the park to serve the general public. The Jekyll Island Authority has approved hotels that are for the most part priced above what middle-income Georgians can afford and has offered the hotel developers financial incentives to build on what is considered prime beachfront property.

In a letter to the Jekyll Island Oversight Committee, a group of legislators that reviews authority actions, Chapman asked members to seek a formal legal opinion on what state law allows with respect to development on Jekyll.

"Georgia's law, when it was written, identified so clearly the spirit behind it about how Jekyll is supposed to be handled," said Chapman, referring to Georgia code that set aside Jekyll Island as a state park for the use of "the plain people of Georgia."

Authority board members could not be reached for comment on Chapman's letter and a planned formal response was not ready for release as of Tuesday.

Two members of the Jekyll Island Oversight Committee said they had not yet received Chapman's letter, but responded to its content.

Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, expressed confidence in the authority's handling of the redevelopment process and said he did not think an opinion from the attorney general would be needed.

State Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, disagreed with his view.

"These are valid points that Sen. Chapman has brought up," she said. "I don't think it's an unreasonable request to have the attorney general look into this."

Last summer, the Jekyll Island Authority offered a $10 million rent abatement to developer Trammell Crow, which will build a new upscale hotel on the site of the old Buccaneer Resort. In September, the authority selected a new private development partner that is requesting more than $84 million in state bonds to help finance the development of a town square center.

Chapman says these incentives amount to giveaways of state property and violate the gratuities provision of the Georgia Constitution.

"Our constitution protects Georgians from the government giving away Georgia's assets," Chapman said. " They're giving away huge abatements and ... what we are getting is expensive hotel rooms which will not be affordable to the majority of people."

But Williams said he doesn't feel the incentives were wrong.

"I don't see structured rent payments as a gift," he said. "It's a way to get folks up and running. It's a very common practice in real estate."

Chapman said he also believes state law prohibits the authority from approving development on Jekyll Island that is overwhelmingly upscale.

He points to Trammel Crow's new 540-room hotel, which will charge an average room rate of $175 per night, as one example of how Jekyll's affordability mandate has been violated. More than half of the new town square center's hotels will charge room rates in excess of $150 per night. Most of the town square center's 277 new condos will be priced above $400,000.

"So far, they have been moving forward as if there is no law. They've ignored the state code regarding affordability," said Chapman.

Williams said believes authority assurances that there will continue to be plenty of affordable hotel rooms on Jekyll.

"I think the market will dictate what Jekyll needs," said Williams. "In most places, it takes a mix of price ranges for things to work. I don't see this as being an issue."

Finally, the authority is required to prepare an environmental impact report on any development that might compromise an ecologically sensitive area, Chapman says.

Fourteen acres of the new town square center lie on what is now a nature preserve. Construction near beach areas may impact endangered species, such as the loggerhead sea turtle. So far, no report has been filed.

"Jekyll Island is one of the most sensitive natural resources we in Georgia own," Chapman said. "The problem with environmental damage is a lot of times once you've done it, it's irreversible."

At Monday's meeting of the Jekyll Island Authority, Chairman Ben Porter said the authority will perform any needed environmental impact studies before approving the town square center's master plan.

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