Wednesday, March 26, 2008

03/22 - Fight flares anew to stop Jekyll plan

Date: March 22, 2008
Section(s): Local News
The Brunswick News

Jekyll Island and state officials are concerned about the impact an amendment attached to a House bill will have on the Georgia park and coast.

The amendment, attached to Senate legislation that seeks to remove the upcoming expiration date of the Georgia Coastal Zone Management Act, takes aim at the $342 million revitalization project planned for state-owned Jekyll Island by Linger Longer Communities.

Introduced by Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Columbus, the amendment bars condominiums and other luxury accommodations - as proposed in Linger Longer's plan - on a half-mile section of beach on the island.

It would block from development the beach area at the existing convention center.

The House Natural Resources and Environment Committee narrowly passed the amendment in a 9-8 vote Thursday.

Buckner's amendment stems from some fears that the redevelopment project will block public access to the open beach area.

"I'm very concerned about (Jekyll Island) becoming overdeveloped," Buckner said. "It is a public beach and a public park. It seems to me since this is the only open public (state park) beach left on the Georgia coast, it should stay the way the people want it. And the people have spoken."

The amendment would not do harm to Jekyll, Buckner said. Instead, it could make Linger Longer rethink plans, which in her opinion, is not a bad thing.

"The only plausible thing it could do is make the developers go back to the drawing board," Buckner said. "And that's not a bad thing."

Measures introduced earlier in the session by Buckner and by Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, to accomplish the same objective were withdrawn or defeated. That's why Buckner decided to attach it to another bill.

Susan Shipman, director of the Coastal Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is concerned about what might happen to extending the Coastal Zone Management Act if the legislation fails to pass because of the amendment.

"I am very concerned with the reaction to the bill from under the gold dome," she said, referring to state legislators in the Capitol. "Based on past Jekyll bill track records, bills (to halt renovation) have not made it very far. It concerns me greatly."

Created in 1997, the Georgia Coastal Zone Management Act allows the state to participate in and to receive funds from the federal Coastal Management Act. The act has a sunset provision and is set to expire in July 2009 unless legislators take action.

Under the act, area organizations receive funds to help conserve, research and rehabilitate sensitive areas of the coast, as well as work to develop outreach and education initiatives for 11 counties in the region.

"This act is multifaceted and very diverse," Shipman said. "It allows for better management of the coast and the federal grants provide a substantial portion of our annual funding."

Shipman is not the only one who is concerned. Linger Longer project manager Jim Langford said he is disappointed by Buckner's actions.

"It's unfortunate that the Coastal Georgia Management (Act) extension was encumbered by this Jekyll legislation, that it is an attempt to restrict our renovation efforts," Langford said. "It's not good legislation and it puts unnecessary restrictions on Jekyll."

Similar thoughts about the amendment were echoed by the Jekyll Island Authority. As the agency that oversees island development and preservation, the authority sees the amendment as unnecessary, said Eric Garvey, senior marketing director for Jekyll Island.

"(We) hope that it can be stopped without affecting the Coastal Management Act, which is important environmental legislation," Garvey said.

The amendment faces obstacles. It's next stop is the House Rules Committee, which includes House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island. Keen supports revitalization plans for Jekyll Island.

Chapman feels differently. If the amendment is not adopted, public access to the open beach will be lost, he said.

"It would be wise of Linger Longer to accept and embrace this amendment and move forward accordingly," Chapman said.

Chapman predicted that the amendment would easily pass through the upcoming floor and Senate votes to become law.

"My colleagues are all very excited about it," he said. "This amendment is the right thing to do."

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