In December of 2016, the appointed members of the Camden County Planning Commission approved a hardship variance for a family, owing a significant amount of property on Cumberland Island bought in 1998, to build and develop the property for a family compound. The property is expected to be subdivided into ten 100-acre lots by Lumar, LLC. Currently, there are negotiations between the Camden County Commission, the Southern Environmental Law Group, and the property owners.
The Cumberland Island variance rezoning for the development of 1000 acres by property owners has caused consternation in the citizens of St. Marys for many reasons. Such reasons range from defending individual property rights to protecting the environmental pristineness of Cumberland Island’s ecosystem while trying to preserve the current economics provided by the businesses of St. Marys.
Proceeding the scheduled 6 PM city council meeting was a 5 PM work session concerning a proposed proclamation which was added to the city’s consent agenda. The proclamation had mixed views among the St. Marys City Council and Mayor John Morrisey prior to the work session. The goal of the proclamation was to garner an up or down vote from the Council, and possibly a tie-break from the mayor, to send to the County Commissioners for their April 18th meeting.
The proclamation stated, “that the City of St. Marys, Georgia stands opposed to any rezoning of land on Cumberland Island that would permit construction or development.” Several on the council had reservations about passing such a proclamation because they felt the language did not reflect enough balance about the widespread concerns in upholding property rights, potential negative economic impact, and protecting Cumberland Island’s environment.
Councilman Allen Rassi expressed that this issue is mainly a county issue to decide and he stated that he spoke with some of the county commissioners about the process of the potential granting of a varience. Rassi then read a statement from some of the county, which said “the parties were able to agree on a draft ordinance by June 1, 2017, in an anticipation that Lumar will withdraw its petition for a variance which will alleviate the need for the appeal hearing. The draft ordinance will then be reviewed for public hearing in front of the planning commission.” Rassi believes the county has done a “fantastic job” handling this issue.
Councilmember Linda Williams understands that the county does not want this issue to go to court, but Williams affirms that the City of St. Marys has a “vested interest in the faith of Cumberland Island.” Williams mentioned the departure point of the ferry for Cumberland was an issue and that the variance was of a similar concern in the sense that it impacts the economics and spirit of the community. “We are the face of Cumberland Island,” Williams said. “I think St. Marys needs to speak up, at the bare minimum, for the least density and disturbance of the national seashore as much as possible,” she concluded.
Councilmember Bob Nutter, who added the proposed proclamation to the agenda, stated this issue of the proclamation is dealing with St. Marys, and not the county. “It is unknown at this time if the county will choose for allowable density for the 1000 acres in question. Depending on this crucial decision, this could range from 50 to 800 structures. What we do know is that the land in question lies in the very heart of the visitor experience of Cumberland Island. If the rezoning is approved, what will happen to the wilderness access areas? What are the impacts to other environmental issues such as turtle nesting, bird population, species migratory patterns, and other impacts due to the possible development of 1000 acres” said Nutter.
Councilmember Nutter questioned what would happen to the proposed planning of the Renaissance Street Scape Project if there are no visitors and the impact on the city master plan due to the lack of visitors to Cumberland. Nutter further questioned what would be the legacy of the council if they do not speak against the variance on Cumberland Island. Nutter also mentioned that the City of Fernandina Beach, FL is also drafting a similar proclamation to send to the Camden County Commission.
“The near natural state of Cumberland Island is the lifeblood of St. Marys” and Nutter reminds Council of the failed gateway project if we do not stand up for Cumberland Island and the continued economic viability to St. Marys. Nutter points out that if the zoning is approved for over 100 homes, the Spaceport project could be in danger because nobody wants to shoot rockets over that many homes.
Councilmember Elaine Powierski believes there is a fine line between personal property rights and what is good for the city as a whole. “The county is giving it the level of concern that is needed and deserves to come up with what all can live with,” she said. Powierski goes on to say that if the county cannot accomplish this balance, it will end up in the court system for years. “Yes, I love Cumberland Island and the environment and all the things that are being said here, but we have to acknowledge there are two sides to this. There are many people who are for personal property rights as there are for those that feel strongly about the environment. I have extreme concerns about us signing this because it will not make a difference because they are still in this process” said Powierski.
Councilmember Jim Gant stated that this is a county responsibility; however, Gant states that “we have the responsibility to protect St. Marys.” Gant further adds that “anything that degrades that wilderness area will change the character of Cumberland Island. We are leaders of St. Marys, and we have to lead the way that is best for St. Marys….we should express our opinion” said Gant.
Councilman Reilly believes that there can be a balance between the residents and visitors to the island can coexist. Reilly feels the island should be preserved, but getting involved at this point when the county is doing their due diligence is wrong. “The issue of private rights is an issue… signing the proclamation for all intentional purposes is to put pressure on the county.” Reilly feels we should be working with the county on this process and mentions that the “Southern Environmental Law Group is astute protecting the environment, but may not be watching out from some of the things we talked about.”
Mayor John Morrissey believes the current proclamation presented needs to be rethought. Morrissey feels much of this process is not finished. “Our colleagues are handling this the best they can and are staring at some legal quagmires…no matter what direction they head, they are threading a fine line…part of their long-term concern is protecting their county in the way this thing is managed…I know that this is not a popular method, but I understand what they are trying to do. Many of you have watched what we are doing to try and be as transparent as possible, so you can make your own informed decision as what we need to do” said Morrissey.
Mayor Morrissey urged the citizens to go to Woodbine and continue to advocate their concerns while the negotiation process is underway. Morrissey still affirms the proposed proclamation at hand is “premature and should not be on the agenda…we should not be faced with an up or down vote with no representation from the other side.” Morrisey said he has heard from a multitude of people and some are saying that the park service should use eminent domain to acquire the property. However, Morrissey said the park service is not a player in this process at this time and thinks that the county commission should continue the discussion. “Negotiations are not done until their signed…nobody has to tell me how important Cumberland Island is, and I do not expect them to try.”
Councilman Jim Gant addresses the use of eminent domain as being a necessity sometimes as he relates its uses to building roads and sewer lines citing the concerns with the Gaines Davis subdivision a few years ago dealing with water and sewer lines. “The good of the public trumps private interest, and this may be a need for it here,” said Gant. “If we make the wrong decision here, we have given it up to future generations. What we are doing is we are making a stand for St. Marys and the island is vital to St. Marys and maybe we should table this a while, and make a positive stand to keep Cumberland Island underdeveloped as much as possible,” said Gant.
As the work session ended, the regularly scheduled meeting proceeded, and citizens voiced their concerns about the variance and their wishes for the proposed proclamation.
Citizens also spoke against the variance and urged their elected councilmembers to pass the proposed proclamation as written and should support keeping Cumberland Island underdeveloped from not becoming another “glamour island.” Some citizens urged the council to act now because there is no time compared to other issues such as such seismic testing in the waters near St. Marys to explore oil drilling. Former councilmember, Sam Colville, stated that the vote on the proclamation is premature and urged the council to get all the facts, but stressed there needed to be a formal opinion from the council to the county commission due to St. Marys’ unique interest to Cumberland Island.
A lawyer from the Southern Environmental Law Group, Bill Sapp, spoke and reminded the council that if they sign the proclamation, they are not saying houses cannot be built on the island, but instead, they are saying that they are concerned where the negotiations are headed. Sapp further added that process to negotiate how much can be built should align to the National Park Services definition of inholdings (private land contained within a larger public shell) on private property. Some inholdings could be limited to 1 structure per 40 acres or 1 structure per 25 acres, so as to protect private property rights, according to Sapp. Some citizens voiced that the county already knows what they are going to decide in terms of how many structures can be built.
St. Marys citizen, Bill Ruse, affirms that the zoning variance needs to be consistent with the mission statement of the National Park Service for Cumberland Island which is no residential development. He states that the zoning classification that presently exists is Conservation Preservation. This classification does not permit residential zoning, and the property rights of the individuals are subject to present zoning. If there is a change, it should be consistent with the mission of Cumberland Island. Furthermore, he stated there would have to be special permits for residents issued such as driving on the beach because they will be entitled to do so under Georgia Department of Natural Resources permitting rules.
Dick Russell, who has lived in St. Marys for over 30 years, asked the council to support the proposed proclamation because Cumberland Island is one of the few last pristine places left. Russell stated that this was “the most important thing you can do….sometimes it’s no longer acceptable to tiptoe down the middle of the road – you must take a stand.” Russell affirms that if the council does not vote for the proposed proclamation, they would either be voting for St. Marys or for development on Cumberland Island.
The council decided to table the proposed proclamation in order to review the language and work on agreeable language by the next called council meeting to send to the county commission. The next scheduled council meeting is on May 1st; however, a special called meeting is likely to occur before that date.
Click HERE to read proclamation