Coastal Conservationists Challenge State On Marsh Development Permit

Southern Environmental Law Center Press Release
December 9, 2004

In the third legal challenge of the state's continued endorsement of development projects that threaten Georgia's marshlands, three conservation groups have appealed a permit allowing construction of a private marina on the Satilla River in Camden County. The groups say the proposed Satilla River Landing project poses a threat to water quality and wildlife habitat in a section of the river that is already stressed from polluted runoff.

"Georgia's coastal marsh is one of the most productive and valuable natural resources in the world - and it deserves to be protected," said Stephen O'Day, of Smith, Gambrell & Russell in Atlanta. O'Day is Senior Litigation Counsel with SELC, which filed the appeal late Wednesday on behalf of the Satilla Riverkeeper, Center for a Sustainable Coast and Altamaha Riverkeeper.

"We aren't saying there shouldnąt be any more development, but the state has to do a much better job of ensuring these projects donąt degrade marshlands," said Chris DeScherer, SELC Senior Attorney. (See for a copy of the appeal)

On November 8, the state Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee granted Atlanta-based Land Resources Companies a permit to build a 64-slip private marina, which would serve the company's proposed 165-lot subdivision along the banks of the Satilla River near Woodbine. In issuing the permit, the committee ignored its own staff of technical experts who recommended allowing only half the number of slips to reduce the impact to the polluted river.

Moreover, the committee disregarded previous court rulings from permit appeals of two other projects that require it to consider impacts to the marsh and water quality from the entire proposed project, not just those portions that sit in the marsh. "The rulings in the Emerald Pointe and Man Head Marina cases set a clear and critical precedent for marsh protection that the state continues to ignore," said DeScherer. In their appeal, the groups say the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act requires that the committee consider impacts from the entire project - the marina, the subdivision, and 11 single-family docks.

Water quality in the Satilla River is of particular concern to the conservation groups, which represent homeowners, boaters, commercial and recreational fishermen, and others who use the marsh resources. State officials have identified a 19-mile section of the river that includes Woodbine as violating water quality standards because of extremely low levels of oxygen, essential for aquatic life.

The state has identified the source of the problem as runoff from developed areas. Excessive nutrients such as fertilizer cause rapid algae growth in the river which depletes oxygen. The 19-mile river section is on the state's official list of "impaired waters," which under the federal Clean Water Act means the river does not support its designated use of fishing.

"The state has no business allowing any additional pollution to get into this river," said Satilla Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers, a former biologist with the Department of Natural Resources who also operates a charter boat for recreational anglers. He said it is rare for the committee to have specific data about the quality of the water for which it is considering a permit, and that the committee failed to take the appropriate precautionary action for the impaired Satilla.

David Kyler, Executive Director for the Center for a Sustainable Coast, said the permit will allow further degradation of an ecosystem that is increasingly threatened. "Georgia has issued almost 1,700 permits for new docks along the coast since 1995," he said. "Just think about the combined environmental impacts from all those docks. We've got be smarter in accommodating growth by accounting for cumulative impacts."

The estuary of the Satilla is typical of the brackish zone along the U.S. eastern coast where salt and fresh water mix, an essential and increasingly threatened habitat for many fisheries including blue crab, shrimp, oysters, shark, speckled trout, redfish and tarpon, Rogers said. He added that rivers like the Satilla are also vital to the federally endangered short-nosed sturgeon.

SELC has represented Kyler's group and others in successfully appealing two other marshland permits:

  • Last year, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance Russell ruled that the committee erred in issuing a permit for three bridges linking three marsh hammocks off the coast of Savannah that would enable the Emerald Pointe developer to build high-end homes on the hammocks. In her ruling, Judge Russell wrote that "bridges are not roads to nowhere" and that "analyzing the propriety of issuing permits for bridges and activities in the marshes in isolation from the larger purpose of the activity or structure does violence to the intent of the [Coastal Marshland Protection] Act." The state and the developer appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals and Supreme Court; both denied review, indicating that Russell's ruling was without legal error and is therefore binding on future permitting decisions.

  • Also last year, Glynn County Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams sent the permit for the proposed Man Head Marina near St. Simon's Island back to the administrative law judge with instructions to "properly consider traffic, waste, and run-off concerns and their potential impact to the public interest." In that case, the developer proposed building 109 boat slips, a 785-foot fueling dock, an 11,000-square foot dry dock and boat maintenance yard, a storm drainage system that would discharge directly into the marsh, a store and office building, a septic system, and a 42-space paved parking lot - covering an entire 1-acre upland with virtually no buffer.
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