Cumberland Harbour: Letter to City of St. Marys

August 20, 2004

City Council
City of Saint Marys
City Hall
418 Osborne Street
St. Marys, Georgia 31558

Re: Cumberland Harbour Project

Dear City Council Members:

I am writing to express our concerns about various aspects of the referenced project at Point Peter. In addition to comments regarding the project included in my attached letter to the Coastal Resources Division of DNR, I would like to bring several other important points to your immediate attention.

1. Permit Administration
As a result of a pivotal Marshlands Protection Permit appeal decision in the case of the Emerald Pointe project in Chatham County, DNR is now required to consider all aspects of development projects when those activities entail marsh permits. This means that final approval actions on a project that you take as a local government could be altered by decisions of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee (CMPC), if your actions precede those of the Committee and if the project in question is deemed to have unacceptable impacts on the tidal marsh. To avoid costly delays that would arise if applicants have to modify projects based on CMPC findings and then re-submit them for local approval, we strongly suggest that you withhold final approval of all local permits for a given project until the CMPC has made its permitting decision.

Based on current procedural requirements used at DNR, we advise that the best approach would be for the City to confirm the following, prior to review by the Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee:
(a) compliance of the proposed land use(s) with the site's zoning classification
(b) results of the City's preliminary site plan review, and
(c) any issues of concern to the City that must be resolved prior to final project approval.

City officials should provide notification about these items by way of a formal, signed letter addressed to the applicant. No approval action should be taken by the City on the final site plan review until after receiving notice from DNR about the results of the CMPC permitting decision. If the CMPC decision includes any conditions affecting the project's site plan, the City's final site plan review approval must be consistent with CMPC requirements, and should reference DNR's findings.

Please advise if any of the procedural changes I suggest conflict with existing requirements in your ordinances. For example, due to the proposed deferral to DNR after the City's preliminary site plan review, it is possible that time limits between initial and final site plan review will need to be extended. The main objective is to prevent avoidable duplication of effort and associated costs for both the City and the applicant, while also improving administration of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act.

If further clarification is needed to determine when a marsh protection permit is required for a project, please contact Jeannie Butler at DNR's Coastal Resources Division at 912-264-7218.

2. Project Phasing and Local Control
We understand that the referenced project is being submitted for review and local approval in phases. To achieve the greatest local control ensuring that projects meet the standards and objectives of City ordinances and subdivision regulations, we strongly advise that the City withhold final approval on subsequent phases of projects until all requirements on earlier phases are met. If this is not already being done, we not only suggest that the City immediately adopted it as standard practice, but also urge that compliance with your regulations is carefully described and administered using explicit criteria. For example, to achieve compliance, a permittee should not only provide plans that meet specified requirements, but they should also have installed streets, curbing, lighting, sewers, drainage systems, water lines, and preserved natural buffers consistent with specifications prescribed in the approved plans.

3. Tabulation and Projection of Costs for Supporting Public Facilities and Services
It has become a common assertion that a community's growth should pay its own way, yet far too often local development decisions are made without rigorous analysis of the projected costs and revenues related to a given project. It is my understanding that one aspect of particular concern about Cumberland Harbour is fire protection, especially in light of the developer's proposal to revise the project to include high-rise structures that are more than double the height of the City's existing limitation. Beyond the costs of fire protection needed to uphold existing insurance ratings, it is important that the costs of other city services and facilities are analyzed before approving local projects. For instance, the amortized cost of water and sewer lines, sewage treatment facilities, roads, drainage systems, and recreation areas, as well as maintenance of these, need to be compared with revenues expected from property taxes, sales tax, and other City income generated by Cumberland Harbour property-owners and residents. Shortfalls between revenues and expenses must be determined, and a strategy should be devised to address deviations in the timing of revenues and costs as well as any difference in their total amounts over time. City officials should recognize that with 1200 residential units, this project could easily add 20% more residents, but impose disproportionate cost increases due to its distance from existing service areas and a less compact development pattern. Impact fees are a justifiable administrative alternative, and should be fully explored as a means for offsetting public costs incurred in supporting the project.

4. Development Density and Building Height
Building height limitations are more than merely a device for ensuring adequate fire protection and public safety. The scale of structures plays a major role in defining community character and sense of place. Buildings of two or three floors in height are consistent with the small town atmosphere of St. Marys, and they complement the historic ambiance that makes the community attractive to both residents and tourists. Even if trade-offs are offered in the form of greenspace, beyond reasonable limits, it is doubtful that significant variances in height limitations are desirable. Structures of the scale proposed are unprecedented in Georgia's coastal residential communities, and with good reason. For example, Tybee Island, arguably the most urbanized of all coastal Georgia towns, imposes a building height limitation of 35 feet, rarely providing variances, which are never more than several feet beyond the limit.

Even if average development density of the project is within the range of existing standards (due to compensating open space), allowing structures more than twice as high as any other buildings in the area will greatly detract from the community's character, and permanently alter it. Furthermore, it is questionable whether residents of surrounding areas, including those within the project as well as off-site, will view this major shift in building scale favorably. Much the same could be said of those who visit Cumberland Island, a designated national wilderness area, from which the proposed high-rise structures would be readily visible and unacceptably intrusive. For all of these reasons, regardless of other considerations, we strongly recommend against granting any major variance in building height.

5. Greenspace
Undisturbed areas with natural vegetation that provide scenic enhancements, environmental buffers, and passive recreational benefits should be protected using conservation easements, held in perpetuity and administered by an IRS-certified land trust or similar organization. While restrictive covenants and deed restrictions are better than nothing, these devices are not as reliable, and evidence indicates that as long as the property is held by the same owner, without a conservation easement adopted protections are unlikely to be adequately enforced. If conservation areas are identified in site plans for projects under consideration, these areas must be protected to ensure that they consistently serve their intended purposes, and to do this valid conservation easements must be established prior to final project approval. Those who seek to establish conservation easements should also be aware that administering such areas entails a cost, and unless such costs are met, enforcement of adopted conditions will be inadequate. This is a major reason for turning administration of conservation easements over to non-profit organizations that specialize in that activity rather than assigning the function to government agencies having an array of other obligations, erratic budgets, and shifting priorities subject to changing political agendas.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of these development issues and procedures, particularly in regard to Cumberland Harbour, please call. I would be glad to summarize my concerns in a presentation to the City Council if that would be helpful.

I urge you to give these critical matters the timely consideration that they deserve.


David C. Kyler
Executive Director

cc. Susan Shipman, Coastal Resources Division, Georgia DNR
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