As a child I remember taking vacations to Jekyll Island with my family. The drive approaching the beach was always spectacular. There is no other view quite like it on the East Coast. The dunes, the sunsets and the pure joy of spending time at the beach have stayed with me my whole life. Growing up, my family never had much money, but like thousands of other families we could save up enough for a vacation to Jekyll Island, Georgia’s most affordable state park.
My first memories of Jekyll Island are the same as what visitors see today when they go to enjoy the public beaches. My own children have experienced Jekyll the way I did when I was a child. I have been to many other beaches, but Jekyll is unique. You don’t see high rises or large resorts. You have a state park in Georgia that is like no other in the country. That is why Jekyll Island is often called "the people’s park." State Sen. Jeff Chapman, whose district includes the park, has referred to Jekyll as a “million-dollar view for the family who doesn't have a million dollars.” How many other states have such a treasure?
Last year I was proud to be a part of efforts to protect the South end, the most ecologically sensitive area of the island. This year renewed the struggle. In 2007, after the Legislative session, the Jekyll Island Authority approved a $352 million, 64-acre mega-development that would add 1,100 hotel rooms and time-shares, with a footprint almost half-again as large as the project that for good reason didn't pass last year. Bigger isn't always better. This super-sized footprint would require demolishing the existing conveniently located public parking lot, effectively obstructing that view of the beach that I grew up loving.
That's why I sponsored House Bill 1289, to shield the open beachfront on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. I also would require at least 50 percent of new hotel rooms have rates comparable to the nightly rate state employees get for hotel rooms when on official business. This comes out to about $128 a night, affordable for most Georgians.
My bill, though, did not make it out of a House Sub-Committee of the State Institutions and Property Committee. With Crossover Day having come and gone the powers-that-be have run out the clock on my legislation. Sen. Chapman has sponsored a similar bill in the Senate, but it has run into the same fate.
This no-compromise, take-no-prisoners approach by the relevant committees and the JIA shows a determination to make sure this mega-development goes forward without any changes or input from even the citizens of Jekyll Island (who are overwhelmingly in opposition). Linger Longer Communities, the politically very well connected company promoting this mega-development, is about to make millions at the expense of average Georgians.
Let's be clear. Jekyll Island does need periodic refurbishing. That's true for any high-volume public attraction. I support development and investment that favors the public, favors the coast, and favors our long-running commitment to Georgians' access to this unparalleled natural resource. What I cannot support is shameless and ruinous exploitation that puts profits over the recreation needs of our hard working families. We should focus on a compromise that works for all sides.
The view of the public beach that I, my family and thousands of Georgians have enjoyed and loved will be gone if we do not act now. Instead of refurbishing areas where there are existing hotels, which is the responsible way to develop the island, the JIA has signed off on a $352 million mega development which will change the integrity of Georgia’s treasure forever. When Jekyll Island was acquired by the state, it was intended for the enjoyment of average Georgians in perpetuity. There are nine days left in the session, and the people’s park is in serious jeopardy.
State Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Democrat from Junction City, represents House District 30.