Jekyll Island redevelopment a question of balance

By David Kyler, Executive Director
Center for a Sustainable Coast7
Saint Simons Island, Georgia
Published in the ATHENS BANNER-HERALD March 17, 2007

Contrary to popular belief, the clash over Georgia's Jekyll Island is not about altering the existing agreement to develop only 35 percent of its area - it's about how that 35 percent will be redeveloped.

And not all "developed areas" are the same.

Classifying a soccer field or a 4-H Club as developed is not the same as taking those areas and redeveloping them as high-rise hotels or condos. Yet, this is the current redevelopment scheme that is being proposed for Jekyll Island. Any redevelopment scheme must be sensitive to these distinctions and to the scale and quality of the Jekyll Island experience.

There is ample reason to think at least some who are behind efforts to redevelop those areas are over-reaching. Due to misguided and short-sighted economic motives, this might lead to the overdevelopment of Jekyll within the 35 percent limit to such an extent that the island's character will be destroyed.

If high-rise hotels and condos replace modest-scaled hotels, restaurants and other facilities, Jekyll will look more like Miami Beach and less like the conservation-friendly, family-oriented destination it has been and was intended to be when the state park was established.

Those who say Jekyll should be generating much more income for the state might mean vastly different things, depending on their objectives. Any increase in visitation will produce more state and local tax revenues, with rising expenditures for food, hotels and various services. But those who promote a more aggressive strategy for Jekyll might intend for the island to become a "cash cow" for financing Atlanta-based political agendas, a goal that will contradict the interests of the public by pushing for intensified development.

Only the most cynical and self-serving politicians would encourage a strategy to maximize Jekyll's income-generating potential regardless of the consequences for residents and visitors alike. The redevelopment strategy should ensure people of all means can continue enjoying this uniquely affordable and naturally beautiful coastal experience.

No one is questioning the need to upgrade and redevelop certain areas of Jekyll, most notably the deteriorating hotels along the beach. But many citizens are understandably troubled by the prospect of replacing facilities like the 4-H Club and the soccer field with exclusive resort hotels and second homes for the wealthy on the south end of the island.

A more accountable approach to Jekyll Island's redevelopment should include specific standards for building in areas needing renovation. For example, a proposal could be adopted that limits the height, lot coverage and use of specific sites. Furthermore, we could provide protection of certain valued facilities and surrounding features that serve the public to prevent unwise redevelopment for inappropriate uses or environmentally incompatible structures. Redevelopment actions should be required to be fully consistent with the Jekyll Island Conservation Plan, which strongly advises against any additional development of the south end.

Another helpful step would be to limit the extent to which the redevelopment of Jekyll Island could be manipulated to serve the financial interests of well-connected political cronies - whether private investors or public officials, or both. While it might not be possible to prohibit public funds - other than taxes - from leaving the island to support unrelated interests in other areas of the state, it seems likely that the original purposes of the Jekyll Island Authority could be better protected.

For example, we can ask that all non-tax public funds generated on the island, such as lease revenues earned by JIA, must first be used to maintain the functions and facilities administered by the authority. This would curb any potentially exploitative or otherwise inappropriate siphoning of vital revenues to off-island destinations.

The board and members of the Center for a Sustainable Coast firmly believe responsible redevelopment of Jekyll Island is not only possible, but it is essential to its future. Unwise and inappropriate redevelopment of Jekyll, especially if driven by monetary motives and privatization interests, will be a destructive influence that Georgians will regret for generations. Even more disturbing is that the public may suffer an irreversible degradation of one of Georgia's most prized coastal landscapes.

Like so much of Georgia's future, the welfare of our coast depends on crafting a resourceful balance between preserving our environmental heritage and meeting the demands of unprecedented population growth.

Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, a membership supported, nonprofit organization that works to protect the public interest in issues related to coastal Georgia's growth, economy and environment. This column was provided through Georgia Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides the media with views of experts on matters of public concern
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