Wednesday, March 26, 2008

03/04 - Opponents set sights on 'the people's beach'

The Florida Times-Union
March 4, 2008
By Brandon Larrabee
The Times-Union

Image (top): CHRIS VIOLA/The Times-Union: On the beachThirty-year residents of Jekyll Island Ann Stephens (left) and Fran Cerrato take their daily walk on the beach past the Jekyll Island Convention Center on Monday. Both said they wanted to see the development of commercial properties including hotels and a shopping center, but they are concerned that beach access might be limited by the condominiums.
Image (bottom): Brandon Larrabee/The Times-Union: Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, holds up an aerial photograph of Jekyll Island and a sketch of Linger Longer's planned development along a popular beachfront. The beachfront is at the center of this year's battle over Jekyll redevelopment.

ATLANTA - In the fight over the direction of Jekyll Island redevelopment, the battlefield keeps shifting from one part of the barrier island to another.

Last year, the focus for those who wanted to shield the island from overdevelopment was the ecologically fragile south end, where sea turtles nested and where a 4-H Center and nationally known soccer field were located.

This year, ground zero has shifted to a patch of beach that is one of the first sights that visitors to the island see and is at the center of Linger Longer Communities' $352 million plan to revitalize Jekyll's sagging tourist infrastructure.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, chief sponsor of a measure aimed at prohibiting additional development along that beachfront, said he and supporters thought they were dealing with most of the land that needed specific protection when they pushed through legislation shielding the south end.

"But no one had any idea that, now, they were going to move and build condos on the most popular public beach area," he said.

The reason the beach is precious, supporters say, comes from its position. The beach is the one most open to the public along the Atlantic Ocean side of Jekyll. Go south, and there are hotels and the protected south end. Go north, and the beach narrows and gets swallowed up during high tides.

"There just isn't another place to go like that," said David Egan, head of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island.

Opponents of restrictions on the beachfront say it would hamper Linger Longer's efforts and prevent the developer and the Jekyll Island Authority from moving the "footprint" of buildings in a way that might end up more favorable for Jekyll.

And the plan will only take up about 8 percent of the beachfront on Jekyll, while the beach on the other side of the buildings will still be just as open to the public.

"It's pure nonsense to think that you're going to have a beach accommodation but you're not going to have any structures on the beach," said Steve Croy, a member of the authority board who spoke at a recent Senate committee hearing where Chapman's bills were voted down.

Egan counters that there are already more beachfront rooms being added on other parts of Jekyll, and that the size of the land doesn't matter as much as its worth to the public - and others.

"There's something real special about it to the developer as well as to the visitor," Egan said of what's called "the people's beach."

Efforts to pass legislation like Chapman's aren't officially dead. A similar measure by Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, is now in a special House subcommittee, though it would likely fare little better in the Senate panel than did Chapman's. Sponsors could try to amend the restrictions onto other legislation if they can find a bill that would make the amendment relevant.

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