Jekyll Island – Protecting The People’s Island

Jekyll Island, at roughly 3800 acres, is one of Georgia’s smallest barrier islands.  In addition to its pristine beaches, Jekyll’s natural environment boasts live oaks and saw tooth palmettos, white-tailed deer, bottlenose dolphins and alligators and tidal creeks, streams and marshes that are critical to the island’s ecosystem.

Thanks to the purchase of the island by the State of Georgia in 1947 as part of its state park system, Jekyll has been largely protected from development and is one of the few beach vacations affordable to everyday families.  In 1950, the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) was created and charged with the care and operation of the island.

In 1971, the Georgia Legislature passed the so-called 65/35 law, which mandates that only 35% of the land area of Jekyll which lies above water at mean high tide can be developed. In the forty years since its passage, there has been much debate over the law’s interpretation, ranging from the obvious (what should be classified as “developed”) to the ridiculous (does marsh count as land?).  Public battles over the quality of development have also raged, including the Reynolds family’s failed 2007 “Linger Longer” proposal to build a posh town center and luxury hotels.

The most recent dispute originated as part of the master plan, a process periodically undertaken by the JIA  to set a blueprint for development and preservation of Jekyll. An impasse was reached over whether development had exceeded the statutory 35% limit.  GreenLaw, representing a citizens’ group called the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island (IPJI), has been working with the JIA and environmental groups (the Georgia Conservancy, the Center for a Sustainable Coast, Environment Georgia, and the Sierra Club) to forge a compromise that will allow the island to be economically viable while ensuring the protection of its precious natural resources for future generations. 

The 65/35 law has been difficult to implement given the complexities of determining the total land area of the island, the shifting shoreline of a barrier island and the persistent squabbles over the definitions of “developed” and “undeveloped.”

Over the past year, GreenLaw has been working closely with the parties involved to arrive at a consensus-based method of calculation using a fixed acreage. The current proposal limits development to 1,675 acres.   This represents an increase of 78 acres above the current developed footprint of the island.  Development would be limited to 12 acres for a campground expansion, 46  acres for public health, safety and recreation purposes (explicitly excluding residential and commercial development), and 20 acres for any purpose otherwise allowed under the statute.  All proposed development would be subject to public notice and comment and review by a legislative oversight committee.  During the 2014 legislative session, GreenLaw will be supporting legislation that will put the fixed acreage solution into law.