December 28, 2016
9 mins read

Cumberland Island is a designated National Seashore with strict rules to preserve a maritime forest so pristine and quiet, the National Park Service says, “You can hear yourself breathe.” Local restrictions on new development were long thought to be in step with federal protections for the barrier island hugging the last 18 miles of Georgia’s coast. As it turns out, Camden County regulations and zoning districts allow new housing and commercial projects on the island. Marinas, bait shops, museums and caretaker housing can be built — and with special use allowances — and so can hotels, motels, resorts and places of worship. The loopholes are big enough for a bulldozer to drive through.

Consider a recent decision by planning officials, whose oversight includes Cumberland Island. On Dec. 7, the board unanimously agreed to waive a rule blocking Lumar, a private ownership group, from subdividing an 88-acre parcel it owns within the National Seashore to build 10 houses. Under the rules, all subdivisions in Camden County, Georgia, must have their lots on paved roads. In keeping with preservation efforts, though, roads on Cumberland Island are not allowed to be paved. According to the Planning & Development Commission, this qualifies as a “hardship” for Lumar, a limited liability company whose members include wealthy and philanthropic descendants of Asa G. Candler, the founder of Coca-Cola, and they will be allowed to construct houses on sandy lanes. The Candler family has said, through an attorney, that they want to build a family compound. This means toppling trees and disturbing large tracts of land to install individual wells and septic systems.

The board’s decision has shaken environmentalists, who believed Cumberland was off-limits to new development.

In a mid-December phone interview, Alex Kearns, who chairs the St. Marys EarthKeepers, a group that has for more than 10 years worked to protect local lands and waterways from bulldozers, pollutants and other dangers aiming to compromise or destroy natural surroundings, recalled her reaction as shocked, alarmed and surprised.

“And that’s putting it mildly,” she said.

Lumar’s property is located about a quarter-mile north of the Sea Camp ferry dock, where day-trippers and overnight visitors leave the boat after the 45-minute ride from the city of St. Marys and get back on when they’re ready to go. In October, the island’s second dock at Dungeness, a mansion reduced to ruins by a fire years ago, was damaged by Hurricane Matthew and remains closed until further notice. The site is also adjacent to the Sea Camp campground and straddles the narrow main dirt road, where the island’s few vehicles, should they meet, must pull over to let the other pass.

One week after the vote, two yellow placards announcing the public hearing for the “hardship variance” remained tucked between sawtooth palms. On a recent trip to the island, tourists who’ve read brochures that led them to believe Cumberland Island is a conservation area — and thus protected from new construction for eons — were puzzled.

On a Dec. 15 van tour up and down the main road to Plum Orchard mansion, the Dungeness ruins, and the small church John Kennedy Jr. made famous when he married there in 1996, a guide explains the island’s history at the turn of the last century, when it was a home and playground for wealthy industrialist families, including the Carnegies of Pittsburgh, the Candlers of Atlanta, and the Rockefellers of New York.

There are frequent stops along the very bumpy road to see majestic live oak trees, some estimated to be 250 to 400 years old, whose moss- and fern-covered branches are so heavy they rest on the ground. The driver halts to let pass the flocks of wild turkeys and herds of feral horses (about 145 wild horses roam the island, according to the guide) spotted among the trees and in a large field that was once tilled for cotton that was picked by slaves. It’s now used as an airfield by a private homeowner believed to be a member of the Rockefeller family. There are so many armadillos running around, the guide says, a critter won’t be missed if someone wants to take it home. A short walk through the brush ends at an overlook of the coastal lowlands, a stunningly beautiful view of the water and golden marshland.

A discussion among the nine passengers, who each paid $45 (plus $28 for a round-trip ferry ticket) for the “Land and Legacies” tour, about preservation versus private property rights veers into heated debate when a couple from Savannah says the Candlers should be allowed to subdivide their land and points out, presumably as justification, that the family is among the biggest donors and fundraisers for some hospitals as well as Emory University. The implications that giving money for public projects in Atlanta serves as permission for trees coming down on Cumberland Island comes as a surprise to others and, as the conversation becomes increasingly heated, the guide diplomatically steers talk to the Timucuan Indians, a tribe that had once inhabited the island.

The proposal for construction on Cumberland was also the topic of conversation later in the day at Captain Seagles Restaurant & Saloon in the Riverview Hotel in downtown St. Marys, though there was widespread agreement in the bar that new development was a big no-no.

“Absolutely not, no, I don’t want to see that happen,” said Cindy Deen, who has been pouring drinks and serving food at the popular bar for 20 years, and is friendly enough to call customers “honey” and salty enough to sprinkle words not appropriate for polite reading into her interactions. A customer from Galveston, Texas, who grew up in St. Marys and was in the city to meet with realtors because she’s thinking of moving back to her hometown, said her grandmother worked as a maid for the Carnegies. On visits to the island, she would place her hand on the sand to feel the vibrations from the galloping wild horses. “That was so special. Who gets to grow up like that?” asked Gordon, a retired registered nurse. “I hope they don’t destroy that.”

Kearns called the Lumar property a conspicuous and vulnerable site and said she worries that tourists, seeking seclusion amid the wilderness, will be turned off by the buzz of new construction. Travelers, she believes, come to experience the island’s pristine forest, moss-draped oaks, and famed wild horses. On the ferry’s approach to the island that day, the tangle of live oaks among the low country’s shrubby marsh was interrupted only by the sight of a horse swimming, head and mane visible above calm water, sparkling in the morning sun. The day had started with rain, but by the time the ferry pulled away from the dock at 9 a.m., the sun was shining. The day remained chilly and windy, though, enough that riders wore jackets and hats (the smart ones had gloves).

As the ferry approached the island, travelers, who had earlier been excited to spot a dolphin popping up and down around the vessel, watched a wild horse step onto the sand and walk into the maritime forest. Exclamations of awe and surprise followed.

Without help from a guide, passengers had witnessed one of Cumberland’s natural wonders. To Kearns, this kind of magical moment could disappear with new development. Further, she believes, any compromise of the natural experience will hurt the coffers of shops, restaurants and lodging facilities in St. Marys and, more broadly, in Camden County.

“Why is there always an effort to kill the golden goose?” asked Kearns.

As Kearns sees it, there’s one recourse.

“This decision needs to be appealed,” she said.

The deadline to do so is at 5 p.m. on Jan. 6, according to the county development office in Kingsland, with an application fee of $250. The appeal would be heard by the County Commission and could be considered as early as Jan. 10.

In a further twist, land in the proposed development site is zoned “Conservation Preservation,” a classification Kearns calls laughable because of the variety of commercial developments, such as hotels, motels and a marina, possible under CP zoning and land-use codes. With the variance, the Lumar property owners have an open door to new construction and there’s nothing within the rules that say they must stick to housing, which, ironically, is not allowed in a CP district and would require a zoning change.

Kearns said she first learned about the proposed development on a quiet day in October while she was on vacation in Canada. It was difficult at first, she said, to understand why the request was even being considered. In 1972, Cumberland was designated a National Seashore and since then, the National Park Service, which operates under the Department of the Interior, has sheltered 36,000 acres of pristine maritime forest as well as almost 10,000 acres of wilderness. The park service also negotiated “retained rights” agreements with 21 private homeowners who will turn their land over to the park service upon their deaths or the deaths of their descendants. According to property records, members of the Candler family have “retained rights” on the far north end of the island in the 34-acre High Point estate. Some believe that the family purchased the 88-acre parcel for $3.5 million almost 20 years ago, in anticipation of losing the High Point property when their rights expire.

“It’s just incredibly hard to believe this is happening,” said Kearns.

Ahead of the meeting to consider the variance, Kearns marshaled EarthKeepers’ membership, asking members and their network of family and friends to bombard leaders with messages asking them to deny the request. More than 700 calls and emails reached county offices, she said, and more than 5,000 signatures were collected on a petition. Newspaper stories from Jacksonville to Atlanta were written about the issue. But, ultimately, the effort, while noisy and far-reaching, failed to persuade the planning board to say no.

The vote was swift, said Kearns, who spoke at the meeting, along with others, both for and against the proposal, and she questioned whether anyone in authority was listening to objections. “There was no discussion,” she said. “One board member asked if the vote was for a zoning change and he had to be corrected that they were considering a variance. Can you believe that?”

The St. Mary’s EarthKeepers are working with an attorney from the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta. William “Bill” Sapp is representing the group and, while he urged the planning board to deny the request, Sapp believes there are broader issues to consider. According to Sapp, there are close to 1,000 acres on the island in private hands that could potentially be subject to development. He’s hoping to strike a deal that would protect all of the acreage from residential or commercial building projects.

“We have to do some serious thinking about whether we want to pursue an appeal or not,” said Sapp in a Dec. 14 phone interview. “Ultimately, we want to work with Camden County, property owners and the environmental community on a plan to address all 1,000 acres.”

Sapp, who has been an environmental lawyer for SELC since 2007, said success will be difficult to attain. “I think it’s a significant challenge,” he said. “A lot of community support and trust is needed.”

The Georgia Sierra Club’s Coastal Group in Savannah will support the appeal effort, says Chair Karen Grainey. The organization wrote to Camden officials objecting to the variance and there are plans, she said, to attend the County Commission meeting if the appeal is filed.

Grainey called the proposed development for Cumberland Island a “heavy footprint” and she questioned the sanctity of protections offered by the federal government.

“What’s off limits?” she asked. “Maybe we should build houses in front of Old Faithful in Yellowstone.”

Grainey said she was encouraged by an editorial in Savannah’s daily newspaper that called Camden County’s decision “unfortunate,” particularly because the publication is controlled by the conservative ownership group that also owns and operates The Florida Times-Union. On Dec. 8, Savannah Morning News wrote that Cumberland “should be protected from potential degradation, not exposed to it.”

In Jacksonville, St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said the issue is outside the scope of her organization’s reach and impact. But personally, Rinaman said, she is opposed to new development that would compromise Cumberland Island’s natural habitat. “Cumberland Island is a jewel because it’s so pristine and, to me, it should stay that way,” she said in a Dec. 14 phone interview. The EarthKeepers are expected to receive support from the Amelia Island EarthKeepers and Sierra Club, Nassau County Group.

The National Park Service doesn’t seem to have any leverage. Cumberland Island Superintendent Gary Ingram wrote to county Planning & Development director Eric Landon, who recommended approval of the variance, on Dec. 6, saying the development on the island could have an “adverse impact on visitors’ experience and enjoyment” and he hopes Lumar’s future plans “are compatible with park values.”

Ingram questioned the “Conservation Preservation” zoning classification, calling it “very restricted” and, as he understood it, the zoning would not allow residential or most commercial services. Further, he said, the variance request did not include any zoning changes. “It is in the best interest of the goals and purposes of the park for Cumberland Island as a whole to be preserved and protected,” he said.

There is some belief — and hope — that the variance to subdivide the land is a harmless effort for estate-planning purposes. Stephen Kinney of the Kinney & Kinney law firm in St. Marys, who represents Lumar, didn’t cite that as a reason. In a Dec. 16 email to Folio Weekly, Kinney says his clients understand there are people opposed to their development project but they have Cumberland Island’s best interest at heart.

“My clients respect the viewpoints of all, even though their opinions may differ,” said Kinney. “The Lumar owners do share with them a deep respect and love for the beauty and heritage of Cumberland.”

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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