According to Pierre Howard, “If Sea Island (Co.) can do this, then it can be done anywhere. The Georgia coast belongs to everybody.” That, he says, is why you should care. Whether you live in Resaca or Rincon, to quote legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, “This land is your land. This land is my land.” That includes Georgia’s mountains and our seashore.
Remember Pierre Howard? He was a long-time member of the Georgia state Senate and later served as the state’s lieutenant governor. I tried to convince him to run for governor but after a quarter-century in politics, he decided there was more to life than living under a public microscope. A longtime conservationist, he has served the past five years as president of the Georgia Conservancy, a major force in conservation and environmental issues. He will retire from that post this summer but if the Sea Island Company thinks Pierre Howard is going to ride off into the sunset, I have some bad news for them.
So, what is the controversy all about? Sea Island wants to build eight residences on the southern end of the island, including a road through what is considered eco-sensitive marsh land. Opponents — including local citizens, environmentalists and even some Sea Island homeowners — say the 7.3-acre spit of land has greatly eroded over the past several decades and will continue to do so. Construction could destabilize the area. They say that much of the proposed area is underwater at high tide and that flood insurance will be prohibited due to the area’s vulnerability to erosion and flooding.
Howard simply calls it “the worst development I have ever seen in my career” and has let it be known the company is in for a fight unless it is willing to sit down and talk about its proposed development, which Sea Island seems disinclined to do at this point.
The Sea Island Co. claims to have the law on its side. Indeed, the local planning commission recommended the Glynn County Commission approve the plan.
Opponents disagree with the findings and want the commission to hold public hearings on whether or not the disputed land was a part of a 2004 rezoning plan. As politicians are wont to do, local commissioners say they are still “gathering information” and “awaiting more findings and facts” from the state and federal government. Plus, it is an election year. Their tap dancing is worthy of Bojangles.
No question that Sea Island Acquisition LLC has money and power. In politics, that usually translates into influence. It will be interesting to see what our state and federally-elected officials and assorted bureaucrats do as a result. Keep a close eye on the Coastal Resources Division, a part of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Its stated mission is to “manage Georgia’s coastal marshes, beaches, waters, and marine fisheries resources for the benefit of present and future generations.” That means all Georgians, not just a privileged few.
This is not the family-owned Sea Island we remember from the past. That one was acquired by Sea Island Acquisition LLC in 2010. The company’s press releases describe the firm as “a limited liability company comprising investment funds managed by the global investment firms The Anschutz Corporation, Avenue Capital Group, Oaktree Capital Management, L.P. and Starwood Capital Group.” One has to wonder if this hodgepodge of out-of-state investors is in for the long haul or just trying to maximize its investment and sell it off to the next hodgepodge of out-of-state investors.
Howard wonders, too. He says, “The company is going in a bad direction that could negatively impact the Sea Island brand.” Why would they risk that if they plan on hanging around?
Sea Island’s management needs to consider the Yarbrough Rule, which says: You may win in a court of law, but you can have your reputation seriously damaged in the court of public opinion. Maybe the law will eventually allow it to build on the environmentally-sensitive land. Is it willing to risk its reputation to find out?
Pierre Howard says he intends to see that the court of public opinion — that is you and me and all people who care about our state’s natural resources — is fully engaged in the deliberations. That is as it should be. Remember, this is not just about Sea Island. This is your land, too.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.