Wednesday, March 26, 2008

03/21 - Close win in Jekyll fight

The Florida Times-Union
March 21, 2008
By Brandon Larrabee
The Times-Union

ATLANTA - A narrow vote by a House panel rejuvenated efforts to protect a half-mile of open beach on Jekyll Island, but the measure approved Thursday faces a steep uphill climb before it becomes law.

On a 9-8 vote, the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee attached an amendment barring condominiums and other high-end accommodations on the popular beach to a Senate measure that would remove the expiration date of Georgia's Coastal Management Act.

The amendment was sparked by concerns over a $352 million plan by Linger Longer Communities, developer of the posh Reynolds Plantation resort on Lake Oconee, to redevelop the state park.

"This would be a way for us to protect what is open beach, and it would be an opportunity as our population grows for there to always be an open access to public beach in a public park that's owned by the public," said Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, who offered the amendment. "It'll give us an opportunity to have this as a first-class amenity for our citizens in their park."

Residents and visitors who had fought for the protections were guardedly optimistic after the first win after a series of defeats for similar measures in the House and Senate.

"I'm pleased that the public still has an opportunity to get protections for the island," said Dory Ingram, a volunteer lobbyist for the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island.

Lawmakers opposed to the measure, though, said the amendment trampled on the work done by the Jekyll Island Authority to revamp the state park's sagging tourist infrastructure.

"We have given the responsibilities to the Jekyll Island Authority of overseeing the development of that state property, and for us to go in and do something like this, I think, purely is micromanaging ...," said Rep. John Heard, R-Lawrenceville.

Eric Garvey, a spokesman for the authority, said the agency had already asked the Department of Natural Resources to clearly mark the area where no new construction could take place without a permit.

"The Jekyll Island Authority is committed to complying with all those limitations," Garvey said. "We embrace that, and we don't think there needs to be additional limitations added."

Buckner said the public outcry over building on the beach should carry the day.

"It is their park," Buckner said. "It is their land. It is their property rights that are being violated if it's developed in a way other than what they would prefer. And so it's our responsibility, I feel, to help them in their efforts to protect what they hold near and dear."

Opponents also raised concerns that the maneuver could endanger the Coastal Management Act, which brings federal funds and coastal protections to the state.

"We are commingling a lot of stuff here, and I think there is confusion," said Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee Chairman Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, who sponsored the original bill.

The measure still faces several challenges. The amendment still has to survive the House Rules Committee, which controls the bills that go to the House floor. The panel can also rewrite measures to its liking.

Even if the protections get through the House, they still have to gain Senate approval to be sent to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature or veto.

"We just have to keep taking a bite at the apple and hoping something's going to get to the core," Buckner said., (678) 977-3709

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