Wednesday, March 26, 2008

03/21 - Jekyll Island gets boost

By Dan Chapman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/21/08

Protection of Jekyll Island's pristine main beach received a legislative boost Thursday when the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted to keep the 1/2 mile stretch of sand development-free.

However, many legislative and political hurdles remain for those who want to prevent condos and hotel rooms from lining the beach near the entrance to the state park, as a developer proposes.

"Part of our coast is under attack right now," said Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Junction City), whose amendment to Senate Bill 367 passed 9-8. The coastal management measure "would keep open the only remaining beach on Georgia's coast that citizens can drive up to."

Now, some of the island's hotels, shops and recreational offerings wear the worn look of an old couch. Developer Linger Longer proposes a $352 million "town center" project —- condos, hotel rooms, time-share units, shops, restaurants and green space —- on 64 acres between Jekyll's dunes and maritime forest.

But public opinion is mixed on the developer's plans for the 7.5-mile-long barrier island. Linger Longer says it will unveil soon a scaled-back project.

The Jekyll Island Authority, which manages the state park, must approve any development and sign a contract with Linger Longer. Buckner and other legislators, however, don't trust the authority to do the public's bidding.

"It's the public's park. It's their land. It's their property rights," Buckner said. "So it's our responsibility to help them in their efforts to protect what they hold dear."

The legislation prohibits development along 2,500 feet of beach north of the island's convention center.

The bill's next stop is the House Rules Committee, whose members typically vote with the House leadership, most of whom already have given public support to Jekyll redevelopment.

Sen. Ross Tolleson (R-Perry), who sponsored SB 367, vowed to fight the amended bill in House Rules as well as later on the Senate floor, if necessary.

"I'd like to see Jekyll Island redeveloped," Tolleson said in a brief interview. "A lot of people just don't go there anymore."

If stymied in Rules, Buckner said she might play another legislative card by taking a similar measure to the House floor, in a ploy used successfully last year to protect Jekyll's south end from development.

"If we get it to the floor, we'll have a majority of votes in both houses" to protect the beach, Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring said. "Yeah, I'm optimistic."

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