Critics say construction boom is ruining Georgia wetlands

Prices rise sharply for state's thousands of acres of waterfront

December 07, 2003|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. - Many residents of this tiny island remember when they could drive along the waterfront and get an unobstructed view of the miles of grassy marshland that make this Southeast coastal area unique. But that was before the tourists and celebrities came and decided they didn't want to leave.

There was a time no one wanted to live anywhere near the marshes. But over the past decade, thousands have flocked to this once-forgotten coast, building condos, mansions and golf courses with marsh and oceanfront views. Real estate prices have quadrupled on Georgia's coast, particularly south of Savannah, which is overflowing with people from the North.

Since John F. Kennedy Jr. married secretly in a small church on Georgia's remote Cumberland Island in 1996, celebrities have been drawn to the area, seeking privacy and solitude. Two years ago, actress Sandra Bullock spent $1 million for oceanfront property on Tybee Island. This year, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck reportedly spent $7 million for waterfront property on Hampton Island.

Salt marshes

Georgia, the least developed of all the coastal areas on the Eastern Seaboard, is struggling to preserve its 350,000 acres of salt marshes - a third of all the marshes on the East Coast - that form stepping stones to the Atlantic Ocean.

"Ten years ago, nobody wanted to live near marsh vistas because people confused them with swamps and they were thought to be a breeding ground for gnats and mosquitoes. Now they are becoming the hottest property around," said Nancy Thomason, president of Residents United for Planning and Action, a St. Simons environmentalist group.

"We are concerned about the loss of aesthetics and the sense of place we have here," Thomason said. "It is difficult to see the natural beauty of these marsh vistas destroyed by bridges and big houses. But we are equally concerned about what this development will do to the environment."

Now that most of the oceanfront land is fully developed in the hot spots of the Southeast coast - places such as Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina - buyers are turning to Georgia. Among the fastest growing areas are Tybee Island and St. Simons, where houses that sold for about $4,000 in the 1950s now go for $200,000 to $2 million. Prices for beachfront houses have skyrocketed to $650,000.

As waterfront property becomes scarce, developers are looking to erect houses anywhere there is soil, including the once-pristine marsh hammocks, small patches of land covered with trees and vegetation that have long served as sanctuaries for migratory birds and other wildlife.

Developers market the property as mini-islands, selling the 1- to 10-acre lots for 50 percent to 100 percent more than comparable interior lots. Environmentalists, who argue that hammocks should be safeguarded under Georgia's Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, are fighting to stop it. But buyers are gobbling them up.

For more than two years, environmentalists have fought fierce court battles with developers, many of whom own private hammocks. The state of Georgia, which owns the marshes surrounding the hammocks, is caught in the middle of the sensitive battle of growth vs. environment.

The debate has made its way to the General Assembly, which is considering legislation to address the issue. Meanwhile, the Department of Natural Resources, responsible for overseeing the state's marshes, has established an advisory council to study the impact and prepare guidelines.

Marshes dying

In addition to trying to manage growth, the region is facing another problem, the unexplained dying of marshes that has turned most of the once-green grasses to a pale brown.

"The problem is that 50 percent of all the land in the region is wetland and 20 percent of the land that would be suitable for development are state or federally owned," said David Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast. "When you start building on the hammocks, it upsets the entire ecological system. And we don't fully understand the extent yet."

The debate over development of marsh hammocks began in St. Simons, a island of about 13,000 people 80 miles south of Savannah, in 1998 when a large house went up on a marsh hammock that is just over a half-acre in size. In order to secure the house on the soggy marshland, the builder erected a retaining wall, backfilled the lot and raised the elevation.

"The biggest issue revolves around the issuance of permits for docks, boardwalks, bridges and other structures that cross the marshes to gain access to the hammocks. If a permit is granted, someone will oppose it. If it is denied, someone will oppose that," said Fred Hay, a technician with the Coastal Resources Division of the natural resources department.

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