The Natural Georgia Series: Barrier Islands

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Blowing up the Bridge vs. Rolling Out the Welcome Mat: The Battle Between Development and Conserving Natural Resources on St. Simons Island.

By Pamela P. HollidaySpecies of wildlife that are well adapted to human activities are much more common on St. Simons Island. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

Photos by Richard T. Bryant

People are attracted to the coast by giant live oaks draped in Spanish moss, tranquil salt marshes teeming with life, and the calming sound of crashing waves on wind-swept beaches, but what happens when those resources are threatened by development? That is the question facing St. Simons, Georgia's most populated barrier island.

"I don't believe in blowing up the bridge, but." is the way many St. Simons residents begin a discussion of development on the island. They don't want to cut off the flow of visitors and new residents who bring money from the mainland, but just about everyone believes the island's natural qualities should be preserved and has an opinion on how to do it.

Residents United for Planning and Action (RUPA) is made up of citizens concerned about development on the island. Past-president Eileen B. Hutcheson says, "With the ambiance of the island changing so rapidly, are visitors going to stop coming? Yes! They come here for the beach, for beautiful trees, for two-lane roads, and for salt marshes." Hutcheson believes these draws as well as residents' quality of life are threatened by development and the growing number of island residents and visitors.

The small, sleepy island has turned into a busy tourist destination with choked roads. Since 1990, the population of St. Simons Island has grown from 12,000 full-time residents to 18,000, according to a recent article by the Associated Press. In the 1970s, 4,000 people lived on the 12,300-acre island. According to the Brunswick and the Golden Isles Visitors Bureau, you can add to the local population approximately 2,500 to 3,000 tourists per day during the peak summer season. The result of having so many people on the island is congested roads but a booming economy. In Glynn County, home of St. Simons, Sea Island, Little St. Simons, Jekyll Island, and Brunswick, tourism is the No. 1 industry, bringing in over $805 million and 1.77 million people in 1997. Traffic clogs the island's two-lane roads. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

Some St. Simons residents, angry the island isn't incorporated with its own local government, say it's the county that's rolled out the welcome mat, encouraging more people to move to and visit the island without consideration for how it affects the quality of life of current residents and beauty of St. Simons. Some believe the island would be developed differently if residents had more control. They say St. Simons risks losing to development the very things that attracted people there in the first place-beautiful moss-draped live oaks, uncrowded sandy beaches, quiet streets perfect for bike-riding.

Many island residents are calling for changes in the zoning plan and an architectual review. Some are concerned about the island's infrastructure, including its roads and water and sewer system, which faces increased pressure as the number of people on the island rises. And there is the problem of developing a beach that constantly gains and loses sand as part of its natural evolution. In 1992 residents fought a $5.4 million plan to pump sand from offshore to renourish the beach, and today stretches that were once wide, sandy beaches are now underwater. Some are asking how long visitors and new residents will come to a beach community that has no beach and, as a result, lacks beach plants and animals.

Changes On St. Simons

Of Georgia's barrier islands, only four are developed and linked to the mainland by bridges and causeways. Tybee Island and St. Simons are developed residential islands. Sea Island is privately owned and developed as an exclusive resort community by the Sea Island Company, and Jekyll is a state park with some private residences, hotels, and commercial development. Jekyll residents own their homes but lease the land their homes sit on from the state.

Development on St. Simons is booming. According to the Associated Press, one-third of the total residential permits issued for the island during the past seven years were issued in 1997. And the island is becoming an increasingly popular vacation spot, according to Kathy Stratton, vice president and managing broker for THE Management Company, which rents over 400 properties on St. Simons. She says the vacation rental business has steadily grown and that the main change has been that the off-season is "a little less off." Approximately 50 percent of the company's units are now full in January and 96 percent are full in February.

Developers can make room for many people in a relatively small space by building condominiums instead of individual houses. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.The Management Company rents properties for people who own second homes on the island. Stratton says many of its owners are baby boomers who have benefited from a healthy economy and aren't waiting to purchase that second home. She says the majority of buyers have vacationed on St. Simons five or six times and like it because of its "special feel."

Island visitors, especially first-timers, may be surprised to learn that there are concerns development is out of hand on St. Simons. Kings Way, one of the most scenic roads leading from the causeway to the interior of the island, is flanked by giant live oaks that hide peaceful, upscale residential golf communities behind them. There are wide stretches of beautiful sandy beaches, especially at high tide, and the historic island village is home to a charming pier, complete with colorful locals fishing and crabbing off its sides, which is a perfect place for a stroll.

Residents are the ones who seem to be afraid of the island losing its tranquil feel and primeval spirit. There have been some very visible changes lately that have gotten people's attention. At the corner of Demere and Frederica-the island's two major arteries-developers clear-cut a forest of live oaks to make way for an Outback Steakhouse and a Hampton Inn. The intersection development is the latest addition to what Hutcheson disapprovingly calls "fast food alley." She says the Waffle House, McDonald's, and other commercial developments aren't hidden from the road by appropriate vegetative buffers.

"Fast food alley" and the intersection development are also controversial because they have taken a big bite out of one of the island's traditionally black neighborhoods, Jewtown. Census figures indicate the island's black population has been declining for decades, and some say traditionally black neighborhoods have been among the hardest hit by development. As property values continue to rise, some believe the middle and lower classes are being taxed right off their property and are concerned about a loss of racial and economic diversity.

Berthenia Gibson is a black woman who grew up on St. Simons and has lived in Jewtown for over 50 years. She says there used to be 40 to 50 houses in the neighborhood and now there are only half as many. She says she's not against development in the right places, but she is against the commercialization of Jewtown. "Commercialization has hit Jewtown harder than anywhere in Glynn County," Gibson says. "When they built the Shops At Demere, we were told the buffers wouldn't allow us to know it was there, but then the buffers were taken down." She says blacks have had to "exodus" the island because it is too expensive to live there.

Alternative Futures

There are some who say the island has already gone to hell. They say there are too many buildings where there should never have been buildings at all and that too many people have already discovered the island to be a great vacation spot, second home, or permanent residence. These people have thrown up their hands and resigned themselves to traffic at rush hour, the loss of live oaks, and more condominiums along the shoreline, but others are fighting to preserve the character and residents' way of life on St. Simons.Golf courses along the coast are looking to new water sources, like the Miocene Aquifer for water and irrigation. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

David Kyler, director of the Coastal Georgia Center for Sustainable Development, says that we are fortunate that a large percentage of Georgia's barrier islands are protected from development-either owned by the state or federal government or protected by legislation like the Marshlands Protection Act. But he says Georgians should still be concerned about development on the barrier islands because while it may not impact a large geographic area, it can have a major impact on natural resources. "The alternative futures are radically different," Kyler says. "Of the roughly 25 percent of land in the region that is able to be developed, that land tends to be close to wetlands or waterways and it tends to be developed in intensive ways that are at odds with the sensitivity of the area," Kyler says. "You can't look at it regionally and say that only 5 percent of the land area is now developed and in the forseeable future there might be another 1 percent developed and that's trivial. That's a highly distorted way of looking at it."

Those who drive far enough down Frederica Road, the main thoroughfare that bisects St. Simons Island, past the shopping centers, old horse stables, and new movie theater and Harris Teeter grocery store, will discover there are still large tracts of land to be developed on the north end of the island. The majority of that land, between 3,500 and 4,000 acres, is owned by the largest landowner on St. Simons, the Sea Island Company, owner and developer of St. Simons's posh and famous neighbor, Sea Island.

As the largest landowner, Sea Island Company has a loud and powerful voice on St. Simons, but not many residents see the company as the enemy. The only negative thing most people can say is that the company builds such high-end developments and maintains them so well that they raise everyone's property values (and the county increases property taxes) and make the island a more expensive place to live. Sea Island Company's recently released 30-year plan for the north end of St. Simons calls for only a fraction of the development allowed under current zoning laws.

Bill Jones, III, chairman and chief executive officer of the Sea Island Company, says, "When we take a look at a piece of property we're about to develop, we don't ask ourselves what can we do, we ask ourselves what should we do. We're in business to make a profit, but we also are very mindful of the community, the infrastructure, and quality of life." Jones is the grandson of Alfred W. (Bill) Jones, the man who built and developed the Sea Island Company with Howard Coffin, the wealthy visionary whose dream and money established Sea Island and the renowned Cloister Hotel.

"On our largest piece of property on the north end, under current zoning, we could have built about 6,000 residential units-about two houses per acre. If we had tried to build 6,000 houses, Frederica Road would be a four-lane road and that's not something we favor. So we backed up and looked at what we could build without four-laning Frederica. We asked to be down-zoned about 66 percent, which I would say is pretty unusual in our industry, but we're very pleased with it. It's the right plan for our company and it's the right plan for our community," Jones says.

As a result of development, some waters are no longer safe for recreation. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.How can building less be right for the Sea Island Company? Jones says building fewer houses will allow the company to offer amenities that wealthy people are looking for in a community-golf courses, greenbelts, horse trails, etc.

There is also a prominent wood stork rookery on Sea Island Company's north end property. Jones says the company is currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to "come up with the right long-term plan to protect that rookery and to insure its integrity forever."

Water Questions

Some people are asking whether or not St. Simons's infrastructure, particularly its water and sewer system, is prepared to handle more development. A major environmental concern in south Georgia is saltwater intrusion into the Upper Floridan Aquifer, the main water source for 24 counties in southeastern Georgia. Over time, extensive use has reduced water pressure in the aquifer, and allowed salt water to seep in, threatening the ground water supply for southeast Georgia, portions of northeast Florida, and southeast South Carolina.

Since the 1960s the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has monitored the amount of chloride in the water from three Georgia wells, one in Brunswick (Glynn County) and two on Tybee Island (Chatham County). According to the Tybee wells, salt water has not yet reached Chatham County, but Glynn County is not faring as well. Concentrations of chloride measured in 1997 were four times as great as the concentrations measured in 1966. In order to stop saltwater intrusion, EPD will not permit any new withdrawals from the Upper Floridan Aquifer in all of Chatham and Glynn counties without associated reductions in water usage elsewhere within the county. New water withdrawal permits are also not being issued for golf course irrigation from the Upper Floridan Aquifer where there are alternate sources of water. These new restrictions have left EPD and developers looking in new directions for water.

The Georgia EPD has determined that the Miocene Aquifer is a good source of water, especially for uses such as irrigation. The Miocene is an aquifer above the Upper Floridan Aquifer, it is shallower, and the water it contains is lesser quality. When the Sea Island Company built its Ocean Forest golf course community on Sea Island in 1994, it was required to use the Miocene Aquifer for its irrigation system. The company is in the process of voluntarily converting its irrigation system at the Sea Island Golf Club, which is on St. Simons, from the Upper Floridan Aquifer to the Miocene. By converting Sea Island Golf Club to the Miocene, Sea Island Company frees up the amount of water it previously withdrew from the Upper Floridan to be used to develop another part of the island, possibly the company's large tract on the north end.

In the search for alternative water sources, there has also been talk of using surface water from area rivers such as the Altamaha. This idea concerns many environmentalists who worry how large withdrawals from the river would affect the plants and animals that live there. Some worry that taking fresh water out of the river would make room for salt water to creep up from the mouth of the river.

Some are concerned about St. Simons's sewage system becoming overtaxed, including the collection system, parts of which were built during World War II. But according to EPD, the island's water treatment facility does have some capacity for residential and commercial growth. The facility does discharge treated water into Dunbar Creek, which is tidally influenced. EPD has asked Glynn County to give careful consideration to developing a water reclamation program (e.g. using treated wastewater for golf course and landscape irrigation) to provide additional treatment and disposal capacity for the island.

St. Simons Island Wildlife

With so many people and buildings, and a shrinking number of natural spaces, the wildlife living on St. Simons is different than the wildlife found on protected and undeveloped islands like Ossabaw, Blackbeard, and Wassaw. According to Brad Winn, a biologist with Georgia's Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the maritime forests on many of Georgia's barrier islands are in good condition thanks to the foresight of state and federal officials and private citizens and organizations. But on St. Simons, where development is occurring rapidly, giant live oaks are being sacrificed for subdivisions and some birds are greatly impacted.

"Painted buntings are of concern," Winn says. "These neotropical migrants have a fairly restricted range. They seem to prefer the interface between maritime forests and salt marsh for nesting. On St. Simons that is also the preferred place for ocean-view and marsh-view houses. It's not just the houses, it's also everything humans bring with us. For example, the domestic cat population on St. Simons is pretty high and that has a direct impact on wildlife, especially birds."

Winn says birders looking for shorebirds, seabirds, and migrant birds on the beaches of St. Simons are most likely to find sanderlings, a species that is less sensitive than other birds to human and dog traffic. He says American oystercatchers, Wilson's plovers, and red knots will be infrequent visitors because they are less tolerant.

Wildlife managers are also concerned about freshwater habitats and marsh edges on St. Simons. While there are laws to protect wetlands, Winn says animals often depend on more than that one habitat. To survive, wildlife often also need the uplands around wetlands, which are not always conserved. Freshwater turtles depend on wetlands and uplands, Winn says. These animals move into upland areas to nest and lay eggs, and when ephemeral ponds dry up, turtles move and bury themselves in uplands. Amphibians often depend on having a wet and a dry habitat. Winn says tree frogs go to wetlands to breed and then move to uplands.

"Any time there is major development, including roads, there are multiple impacts on wildlife," Winn says.

Disappearing Beaches

Terry West, regulatory program manager for the Coastal Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources, says, "You'll see sea gulls and ghost crabs on St. Simons because they eat tourists' trash. The current situation on the beach of St. Simons Island is not conducive to birds and turtles."

The situation that West is referring to is that, in places on St. Simons, there isn't much beach left. It is eroding as part of the natural north-to-south flow of sand by ocean currents. Barrier islands are constantly changing shape. Their beaches are eroded, and the sand will eventually be replaced with deposits from offshore currents and dunes. On undeveloped barrier islands, this natural ebb and flow goes virtually unnoticed, but on islands where homes, resorts, and businesses are perched near an eroding beach, erosion captures people's attention.

There is a temporary fix to beach erosion, beach renourishment, a process that involves pumping sand from offshore and depositing it on eroded areas. It is an expensive and controversial proposition, as the residents of St. Simons learned in 1992 when Glynn County considered pumping sand being dredged from the Brunswick shipping channel onto a 2-mile stretch of St. Simons beach. Ironically, some harbor dredging projects in Savannah, Brunswick, and St. Marys have been blamed for accelerated beach erosion, which is now temporarily "fixed" with dredging spoils.In 1963-1964, the "Johnson rocks," named for President Lyndon Johnson, were used to armor the St. Simons beach. Today, people have developed on top of the rocks. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

The $5.2-million proposal surfaced after a stretch of beach in front of the King and Prince Hotel, beachfront condominiums, and private homes eroded, leaving no beach at high tide. The proposition also involved building at least one jetty, a 453-foot-long and 9-foot-high concrete structure, that proponents said would hold the new sand in place. Opponents said the structure would be dangerous and unsightly and would cause accelerated erosion on the downdrift side, where the island's historic lighthouse, village area, and some private homes are located.

The proposal met strong opposition on St. Simons and was eventually called off. Taylor Schoettle, an author and environmental activist, helped fight the renourishment project. He says, "Once you get renourished you have to renourish forever. You're telling the sea to stand still, and that's a death knell." Schoettle says that St. Simons has not had an overall loss of sand, that the beach is just naturally eroding in some places and growing in others. He and other opponents to the plan advocated letting the island continue to maintain its own beaches. They argued that the jetty would not so much hold the new sand in place as it would interrupt the natural flow of sand.

But advocates of beach renourishment say that it is necessary not so much to protect recreational areas as it is to protect beach-front property from storms. As beaches erode and the shoreline recedes, structures become more prone to damage in storms. On Tybee Island, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has renourished the beaches and worked to reestablished the dune line. The Corps of Engineers has mounted sand to approximate the dunes, used snow fencing to trap the sand, and planted dune vegetation that will help the dunes continue to grow. Now, says Jim Parker, chief of public and legislative affairs for the Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, during storms the dunes act as "shock absorbers." Instead of the water hitting the beach and eroding it away, the water hits the dunes and sand is eroded back onto the beach.

Cost is always an issue in beach renourishment because it is an expensive proposition. Beach renourishment also isn't a permanent solution, so it's not a one-time cost. The pumped-in sand eventually erodes, and the expensive process has to be repeated. Parker says Tybee Island generally needs renourishing every three to five years. On Tybee, beach renourishment has been paid for with a combination of public and private funds, while on Sea Island, beach renourishment has been paid for exclusively with private funds. If public funds are used to pay for beach renourishment, the community must provide public access to the beach. Some proponents of the
St. Simons beach renourishment project say people opposed it because they did not want to provide more public beach access, that they were afraid of attracting more tourists to the renourished beach. Shoettle says that's not true.

"Sand isn't going to be a problem on St. Simons," Shoettle says. "People aren't put off at all because the beach is covered up at high tide. That's natural."

"You will certainly hear people oppose beach renourishment saying that it's not a natural thing, that we should let barrier islands be barrier islands," says Parker. "And we would agree with that 100 percent except that decisions were made historically to allow communities to build up on islands. And those communities are there. There is no practical way to tell the community of Tybee to pack up and move away. We believe it is part of our responsibility to do things to protect communities, and if that community has become a recreational facility, to maintain that, too."

So, is renourishment a good or bad thing for wildlife? Parker says that any displacement of invertebrates in the sand during renourishment is very temporary and is outweighed by the positives to the environment, like restoring beach vegetation and turtle nesting habitat.

Winn says that invertebrates are impacted heavily and for a long period of time by beach renourishment. He adds that shorebirds who rely on these invertebrates as a food supply are also affected. When it comes to turtles, Winn says the effects depend on the quality of sand. If the sand is fairly loose, it can enhance nesting habitat, but if it is too compact, it may lead to unsuccessful nesting. Sea Island, at times, has had some of the highest density of turtle nesting on the coast, and some people say that is due to beach renourishment efforts. Winn says that might be true. He also says that St. Simons's low turtle nesting numbers may not be totally due to a loss of sand. In 1998, only one loggerhead turtle nest was found on St. Simons, compared to 79 on Sea Island.

"We don't know what indicators turtles use," Winn says. "St. Simons may not offer an approach to the beach that turtles cue in on. Cues tell turtles what kind of beach to expect. Some high-density nesting spots in Florida are in developed areas. A lack of nesting could be credited to the water current not being good around St. Simons, especially on the south end. There's a great deal of current there that may not appeal to turtles. Nesting goes well on Sea Island, but I wouldn't attribute that wholly to beach renourishment."

The Redevelopment Of St. SimonsSome conservationists wonder if Georgia is trading beautiful beaches for deeper shipping channels. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

It's not just new development that is a problem on St. Simons Island. It's also redevelopment and development in previously inaccessible areas. Even on a first trip to the island it is easy to spot places where one old home was torn down to make room for five condominiums. All over the island, the density of development concerns people.

The amount of land on an island is limited. The only question is how many people will be squeezed onto that land. But developers are discovering a new type of land on St. Simons-marsh hammocks-and some environmentalists are not excited about that. One of the Sea Island Company's newest developments on St. Simons is on Hawkins Island, which could also be called Hawkins Marsh Hammock. It features 70 single-family lots that sell for between $400,000 and $600,000. The hammock is connected to St. Simons by a 400-foot bridge, not something inexpensive to build. According to West, a few years ago it was not economically feasible to develop hammocks. Now that property values have sky-rocketed, developers can sell the lots for enough money to make building a bridge worth their while.

"When you develop a marsh hammock, you destroy a limited habitat," West says. "These uplands in the marshes are extremely unique and important to wildlife, for nesting areas, roosting areas, and as stopovers for migratory birds. The loss of habitat is immediate. Then there are secondary problems. You have to have water and sewer lines, which don't have any impact unless there is a spill. Then every lot has to have a lawn. People will use fertilizers and pesticides on those lawns, and that runs off into the marsh."

As development reaches new levels on St. Simons and shows no signs of letting up, the natural resources that have made the island popular to humans and wildlife face great pressures. Some residents and environmentalists are afraid that the giant live oaks, marsh hammocks, and shorelines will be gobbled up by residential and commercial development-that developers will kill the goose that laid the golden egg. With so much of Georgia's coast accessible only by boat and protected from large numbers of people, the ironic result is that the islands connected by bridges to the mainland and open to development face a never-ending stream of people who want to enjoy the natural beauty but risk destroying it in the process.

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