Thursday, January 17, 2008

01/15 - Critics of Jekyll project vow legislative attacks

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/15/08

Critics of Jekyll Island's proposed condo-hotel redevelopment plan vowed Tuesday to launch legislative attacks and additional legal challenges against the upscale developer's $352 million project.

Legislators, environmentalists, residents and anti-development activists used a seemingly routine hearing at the Capitol to attack Linger Longer Communities' "Beach Village" plan that would add 1,100 hotel, condo, cottage and time-share units to the state park.

Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick), whose district includes the state-owned island, said he's likely to introduce legislation to curtail development and, possibly, to mandate the island remain affordable and accessible to "all Georgians," as state law requires. Chapman helped lead the legislative charge last year to prohibit development of Jekyll's south end.

Linger Longer, along with Jekyll Island Authority board members, responded that redevelopment plans remain fluid and could change. Yet their ire over the growing anti-development fervor couldn't be disguised.

"Jekyll needs to be fixed," stated board member Steve Croy said to the more than 150 people stuffed into a legislative hearing room. "We'll just have to put up with these naysayers until we get the project fixed."

Linger Longer's plan touts an environmentally benign "town center" filled with families, conventioneers, greenways, hotel rooms, shops and restaurants. The 64-acre project would front the Atlantic Ocean along one of the most pristine stretches of Georgia coast. Much of the construction would sit eastward of Beachview Drive and require the demolition of the convention center and a huge parking lot.

Chapman wants all construction built west of the coastal roadway so the beach remains accessible to all Georgians, not just those renting condos or staying at the 400-room hotel (average daily room rate: $183) planned for the site.

"Let's not forget that Jekyll is not private property," Chapman said. "It's a public beach."

Last year in the Senate, Chapman shepherded legislation that prohibited development of the island's South end. He said he's again prepared to try and legislatively protect a popular stretch of the state park.

Jim Langford, the project executive for Linger Longer, said sparing property east of the roadway might require builders to push farther west into the island's maritime forest — an environmental either-or situation that promises to displease somebody.

"Potential visitors ... strongly desire accommodation close to the beach," he said in an interview. "They feel it's important to have some contact with the beach."

Board member Ed Boshears questioned Langford over the affordability of the project's 1,100 rooms. Langford said 72 percent of all of the the rooms proposed for the island will rent for, on average, less than $139 a night. But critics said many of those rooms would only be found in two- or three-bedroom condos, not in hotels. That would mean families could be spending two or three times that average amount each night.

"It's very deceptive of these people to claim these units will be affordable," Boshears said.

Chapman earlier requested that the state Attorney General's office investigate whether Linger Longer's project conforms with the state's affordability mandate.

Environmental groups, including the Georgia Conservancy and the Center For A Sustainable Coast, criticized the project's proximity to sand dunes. Linger Longer was surprised to learn earlier this month that its project might need an environmental permit to build close to the beach.

Jamie Reynolds, vice chairman of Linger Longer, vowed the "Beach Village" will maintain "the protection and enhancement of natural resources."

The island's governing board was buoyed Monday when a Fulton County Superior Court judge turned back a legal challenge to Linger Longer's plan, allowing the redevelopment to move forward. But critics Tuesday, though, vowed other legal fights if the plan isn't scaled back.

"It is our intention to challenge this effort through every legal means available to us," said Frank Mirasola, president of the Jekyll Island Citizens Association.

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