Natural treasure must be protected

By David Kyler, Executive Director
Center for a Sustainable Coast
Saint Simons Island, Georgia
Published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution December 10, 2007

From news coverage of the redevelopment plan for Jekyll Island, you might get the uneasy impression that the major makeover project is nearly ready for the surveyors and construction crews to start working. As impressive as these plans may appear, far more analysis is needed if the public hopes to retain Jekyll's unique purpose - and environmental qualities - as a state park.

It would undoubtedly strike most people as odd that no one has calculated the number of visitors that could be expected on a peak day once the proposed plans are implemented, or how that number of visitors would affect the experience of being on Jekyll. Proposing an extensive development design for such a unique place as Jekyll Island without knowing the answers to these questions borders on the bizarre, and is well within the realm of suspicion. To proceed without such information would be irresponsible, given the significance of the outcome.

To Jekyll Island Authority's credit, in October they agreed to conduct a capacity study for the island - something we had recommended. Yet, under their supervision, the chosen 'private sector partner,' Linger Longer Communities, Inc., moved forward in holding public meetings where LLC's original design served as the basis for soliciting comments. Surely if a capacity study is to be used to guide Jekyll's revitalization, it should be done prior to any further advancement of a development plan.

Evidently it has been unwisely assumed that building high-quality, well-designed structures and facilities alone will guarantee that the island's redevelopment is a success. But we need to take a serious look at how success for a state park is defined, which is presumably much different than it would be for that same kind of coastal real estate in the hands of the private sector.

Unfortunately, those in charge of the island's redevelopment seem to be driven by the unfounded assumption that the private sector should determine the best use of all resources, including a state park. By treating this environmentally sensitive barrier island state park the same as any private coastal real estate, the Jekyll Island Authority will be doing a major disservice to the people of Georgia and the leaders who established the area for recreational use by all citizens almost 60 years ago.

Some may assert that the adopted limit on the proportion of the island that can be developed will prevent undesired consequences. But important though that constraint may be, honoring the 35% limit of the island that can be developed does not ensure the public will be best served.

There are many aspects to questions raised by making the distinction between a state park and the private development of private land as a luxury resort. Is it really appropriate and in the public interest for a state park to feature deluxe hotels, restaurants, and condos? This question is even more provocative given the historically relaxed, slow-paced atmosphere of Jekyll, which remains the essence of its appeal to most visitors.

A survey conducted by the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island (IPJI), a non-profit group representing the park's visitors, found that all but a few of the nearly six thousand Jekyll visitors who responded did not want to see more than a hundred condominiums built on the island. Most respondents do not want to see any condos at all. Yet the proposed development features 560 condos and time-shared units, including the work of both Trammel-Crow (another developer replacing worn-down hotels) and the 65-acre Linger Longer project.

While it is true that Jekyll Island, unlike most Georgia state parks, must generate the revenues needed to support the island's infrastructure, administration, and natural environment, it does not follow that the private sector should be given free reign, nor that luxury facilities are desirable. In fact, even if the purpose of the redevelopment proposal was to maximize revenues, without any market plan or well-researched business analysis, there is no basis for predicting that such a goal could be met.

It is obvious from responses to the IPJI survey that there are fundamental disagreements between the Jekyll Island Authority board - not to mention the considerable political forces behind it - and the general public, whom the park is meant to serve and for whom it was created. There are also important unanswered questions about unnecessary disturbance of critical wildlife habitat that would be caused by implementing the proposed development scheme. This includes nesting grounds for the seriously threatened loggerhead sea turtle.

Until public officials, both elected and appointed, recognize their obligations to the the citizens of Georgia, we face the risk of losing a state treasure to the totally inappropriate motives of private development. More thoughtful analysis needs to be done to prevent unwise development in the guise of 'redevelopment' causing a calamity that Georgians would regret for generations.
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