Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jekyll Tug-of-War Starts Anew (Georgia Times Union)

By Brandon Larrabee,
The Times-Union

ATLANTA - The Battle of Jekyll Island is raging again at the state Capitol.

Lawmakers and residents frustrated with plans to revitalize the state park's sagging tourist infrastructure have returned to the site of their victory last year to try to win more protections for Jekyll's beaches and the middle-income Georgians they say are being forgotten.

This time, though, they face greater resistance than in last year's successful campaign and charges that legislative meddling could undermine an attempt to bring visitors back to a park some say is fading from the memory of many would-be vacationers.

Both sides paint the looming legislative battle as a struggle for the island's soul.

Backers of legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, say they're trying to preserve the island's historic mission to be open and accessible to people of all incomes and from all walks of life - the very Georgians they say would be discouraged from coming to Jekyll under the plans of politically connected developer Linger Longer Communities.

"If they manage to shoot this down, they will essentially have a free hand to do with that state park whatever they please," Chapman said.

Linger Longer counters that it is simply trying to renew interest in the island, where visitation has been headed downward, and to make it a prime vacation spot once more.

"We're just trying to make it what it should be," said Jim Langford, the executive overseeing the Jekyll project.

The steepest challenge facing Chapman and his supporters, though, might simply be getting a chance to be heard.

Return to the battleground

For Chapman, it's a return to an issue that brought him key legislative victories in last year's session. Holding a firm Senate majority, Chapman managed to attach a measure preserving the island's ecologically fragile South end onto a bill extending the Jekyll Island Authority lease.

That lease measure was a key goal of the authority, which said it needed a long-term agreement with the state to persuade developers to build on Jekyll.

Chapman's new proposals aim to do three things:

- Define certain terms in the agreement, like "lowest rates reasonable and possible," that have caused many of the clashes;

- Severely restrict new development on the island's beaches; and,

- Bar new residential leases at state parks like Jekyll.

One of the key battlegrounds has become the proposal to try to limit development east of Beach View Drive, a move that Chapman and his supporters say would keep one of the island's most popular beaches open to most visitors.

The Linger Longer plan would use some of that land for a new town center complex that is anathema to opponents of the developer's proposal.

"It's a million-dollar view for the family who doesn't have a million dollars," Chapman said.

Chapman's proposals would also limit prices at new hotels built on the island, a key concern for residents worried about the island shirking its traditional role as a low-price destination.

"What we're seeing is a steady trend upward with the price of the Linger Longer project," said Dory Ingram, a volunteer lobbyist for the grass-roots Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island.

But Langford said the seemingly benign bills advanced by Chapman really have another goal: To kill the development plan entirely.

"It's designed to shut down revitalization, essentially, or any serious attempt at revitalization," Langford said.

He said the proposals for hotel rooms amounts to a price control, and ignores the fact that 72 percent of the rooms brought to Jekyll under the Linger Longer plan would go for less than $139 a night.

And pushing new development west of Beach View Drive could put pressure on wetlands, the Historic District and similar key assets, Langford said.

"There are a number of things west of Beach View that I think should be avoided," he said.

Island access debated

Much of the resistance to the developers' proposals comes from residents who don't want to see the island revitalized and who, in fact, would like to keep the island from becoming a key tourist attraction again, Langford said.

"They really don't want more Georgians to come to Jekyll, and that's not the Jekyll Island that Jekyll was meant to be," he said.

Ingram and Chapman both said they would like to see the island's hotels and accommodations redeveloped. Chapman said that Linger Longer is essentially telling the state: Trust us.

"What I'm proposing is in black and white and easy to understand," he said. "What they're proposing is all verbal."

Critics of Linger Longer also note that the $139 nightly room rental figure comes from including every individual room in a condominium, for instance, as part of the average.

That's not an uncommon practice in the hospitality industry, Langford counters, and in fact accounts for the fact that some groups use time-share condos for a limited time when they go to stay on the beach.

Stuck in committee

For now, the priority for Chapman and his supporters is to get the bills out of the Senate Economic Development Committee, where they've been parked for more than two weeks.

Chairman Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, said last week he's asked the Jekyll Island Authority whether the proposals would harm attempts to revitalize the park.

"We want to make sure that we're not undermining completely those efforts that have already been determined," Pearson said.

Once the authority provides Pearson with the information he's asked for, the chairman said, he'll make a decision on whether to hear the bills.

Chapman said he's received no guarantees from Pearson or Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who heads the Senate, on whether or when the proposals will come before Pearson's committee. He and others are aware that, unlike last year's lease bill, the Jekyll Island Authority and its supporters don't need any legislation this year.

"Having spoken to the lieutenant governor, I want to believe that the people of Georgia are going to have an opportunity to have their legislation heard and voted on," Chapman said.

But while Cagle left open the possibility Chapman's bills could be heard, he also made it clear last week that the Jekyll bills might not have enough leadership support to move forward.

"I don't know that the appetite among the General Assembly is real strong to try to micromanage the process," he said.


(678) 977-3709

what they are saying Backers of legislation to preserve Jekyll Island's historic mission: "If they manage to shoot this down, they will essentially have a free hand to do with that state park whatever they please." - State Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick Backers of plans to develop the state park: "We're just trying to make it what it should be." - Jim Langford, executive overseeing the Jekyll project

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