SAVING Cumberland Island

Update: This article has been edited to reflect a change to the date of the meeting from Feb. 7 to April 4.

On April 4, there is to be a meeting to decide whether Cumberland Island, a designated national seashore and the untamed pride of Georgia’s southern coast, will see new development. Heirs to the Coca-Cola fortune have announced plans to subdivide an 88-acre parcel into 10 lots to build a family compound. While Cumberland Island is owned and operated by the U.S. Park Service, some 1,000 acres are in private hands.

The Candler family, incorporated as Lumar, received approval in December from the Camden County Planning Board to divvy up the property and build houses on sandy lanes, rather than paved roads, as required. While Lumar still needs special permission to build the houses under the island’s Conservation Preservation zoning district, the hardship variance cleared the first hurdle for the family homestead.

But a challenge is underway, backed by environmentalists and local residents who were stunned and outraged by the board’s decision. The Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta filed an appeal on Jan. 5 with county officials in Woodbine on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and St. Marys EarthKeepers.

SELC Attorney Bill Sapp said his clients are not convinced Lumar met the burden of proof necessary to secure the variance and are seeking a long-term solution for protecting the island’s natural beauty and historic character.

“Cumberland Island is truly the crown jewel of Georgia’s barrier island system and consequently should not be treated like any other run-of-the-mill property,” said Sapp in an announcement issued shortly after filing the appeal.

Alex Kearns, who chairs the St. Marys EarthKeepers, said people want to see Cumberland Island’s “wild, natural” and protected state. Allowing the hardship variance to stand, she said, could set a “bad precedent.”

Don Barger, the southeast regional director for the NPCA, agrees that new development has no place on the near pristine barrier island. “It’s vital that we do all we can to preserve … this rare and idyllic place for current and future generations,” he said.

According to the Park Service, an estimated 60,000 people visit the Cumberland Island National Seashore each year, taking the 45-minute ferry ride from the St. Marys waterfront to the Sea Camp dock. The number would likely be much higher, but there is no bridge to Cumberland and the Park Service operates, through a vendor, a limited number of rides and reduces service during the winter. Daily ticket sales are capped at 300 to help protect the habitat.

Visitors come to see a maritime forest with thick, moss-covered live oak trees, undeveloped beaches and wild horses. Cumberland Island is also remarkable for its history as a retreat for gilded-age industrialists and the sleepy location for John Kennedy Jr.’s 1996 nuptials. As the rich and famous have long known, Cumberland is an ideal location for people seeking seclusion and an unspoiled view of the coastal lowlands.

It was the area’s raw natural beauty that attracted Bill Bruce, a retired attorney and former Georgia state senator, to St. Marys, first as a visitor and later as a fulltime resident. Concerned that the island’s natural environment will be destroyed by new construction, Bruce is leading a local citizens group that has filed an appeal opposing the variance.

“We are concerned that this is the first step toward rezoning of the subject property in a manner which is inconsistent with its National Seashore status, its national reputation, its natural beauty and charm enjoyed by all, especially those of us who reside here in Camden County,” said Bruce in the Jan. 4 filing.

Over the last several weeks, Sapp, Kearns and Bruce have been fortifying their case by seeking allies. They thought tourism officials might also resist new development on Cumberland, so on Jan. 24 they attended a meeting of the St. Marys Convention & Visitors Bureau to make a personal pitch for a letter of support.

The C&VB operates in a pretty, tidy building four blocks from the waterfront in the city’s historic downtown district. In a bright conference room filled with promotional displays about local places of interest, including Cumberland Island, the trio took seats and waited for their turn to speak. Initially, the request looked promising. But the board wasn’t convinced that new houses on Cumberland would negatively impact tourism. Further, they voiced misgivings about getting involved.

“Are we the ones to weigh in on this?” asked Chair Donna Ashbell, who called the development proposal a private property issue.

Member Barbara Ryan disagreed, and said, in her opinion, opposing the development was a no-brainer.

“We’re the gateway to Cumberland Island,” said Ryan, referencing the local tagline. “At the very least we can agree that building homes will not have a positive impact.”

Ashbell would not concede the point and said the development is a proposal — not a done deal. “I don’t know if we can support what may happen,” said Ashbell.

Ryan was nonplussed. “With McMansions [on the way], you can look at me honestly in the face and say that?”

The discussion quieted down upon arrival of a local newspaper reporter. During a break, Ryan was heard telling the reporter she was ready to quit the board on the spot until he turned up and the board turned around. While the members would not write a letter of support, the C&VB said it would write a letter of “concern” about the variance.

The Lumar property is located about a quarter-mile from the Sea Camp ferry dock and stretches across the island from the river to the ocean. The land is adjacent to the Sea Camp campgrounds and the island’s main dirt road cuts north-south through the property.

Bruce told tourism officials he is concerned about new construction at such a prominent location and warned the board about the future should Lumar decide to sell the land.

“There’s a fear people will be turned off by construction and the number of houses,” said Bruce. “The [variance] travels with the land, not the Candlers.”

Kearns said a 10-lot subdivision may not sound like a significant development, especially in the midst of so much acreage, but she believes that once development begins, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

“If this goes through, it will start a domino effect,” said Kearns. “I urge you to raise your voice.”

Kearns said more than 17,000 people have signed online petitions opposing development and another 800 people have contacted county officials through emails, letters and calls, urging them to overturn the Lumar variance. Camden County Planning Director Eric Landon said by phone on Jan. 26 that the board has three options: uphold, deny or defer a decision.

The issue has received widespread media coverage, including in Sierra Magazine, said Kearns, who believes the stories have reflected poorly on the community.

“I think we need to be very, very aware that the eyes of a nation are on us,” said Kearns.

For his part, Sapp offered some history on the arrival of the Park Service in the 1970s and said the Carnegie family first pursued the arrangement and that agreements with local property owners took two decades to hammer out. Various owners struck various deals with the Park Service about when to turn their land over to the government, though some owners never came to terms with Washington. According to Sapp, when they purchased the property in 1998, the Candler family promised to keep the land “pristine.”

Tourism Director Angela Wigger said in a Jan. 26 phone interview that the proposed development is not a “cut and dry” tourism issue.

“Who can say with any definite certainty what impact it will have on tourism?” said Wigger.

Tourism officials took a protectionist view of Cumberland several years ago when a tour boat operator from Fernandina Beach sought the ferry contract as well as a direct route between the city and the island. To sink the plan, local officials called on Georgia’s senators for help and Amelia River Cruises was quickly removed from consideration.

“We weren’t opposed to Amelia River Cruises having the ferry [contract]. No one cared as long as it stayed in Georgia,” said Wigger.

While Amelia River Cruises has long promoted boat rides ‘to’ Cumberland, the best the company can offer is pointing-and-waving service. Amelia River Cruises, like all other tour boats, is prohibited from stopping at Cumberland Island. Wigger called it an economic issue.

“Losing the ferry would be devastating to our small downtown,” said Wigger. “It’s not going to be devastating to Fernandina Beach. So, yes, we went after that.” 

Cumberland Island contributes $2.5 million to the county’s $90 million tourism industry, according to Wigger, who provided numbers released this week by the state for 2015, the latest figures available. While Cumberland Island is popular, Kings Bay, the naval submarine base, is “our biggest economic driver,” she added.

While C&VB members voiced doubts about the proposed development’s impact on tourism, Wigger believes everyone can agree, “Cumberland Island, no matter where you fall on this issue, is important to Camden County.”

Leaving the board meeting around 4:30 on a warm, sunny afternoon, one could see downtown St. Marys sparkle. The buildings in the historic district are well-cared-for, the landscaping on public and private properties is lush and the waterfront, with the golden marsh in the distance, was pretty and polished. It was surprising that so few cars and people were on the streets.

Retiree Allan Giese, 63, explained that crowds are scarce when the ferry to Cumberland isn’t running. There is no service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28. Giese was asked how long it has been since he toured Cumberland. “I’m going next week,” he said. Giese is traveling, he said, as a chaperone for a school trip with students from Woodbine Elementary School.

Walking with his wife along St. Marys Street, Giese said “everyone” is waiting to see what the commission decides on Cumberland. “Development is going to be in the shadow of the campsite,” he said. “That’s unfortunate but it’s not a done deal. We’ll see what happens.”

His wife, Abbie Cumming, 60, a registered nurse, wants the commission to reject the variance. “I hope they leave it alone,” she said. “They’re destroying a natural habitat.”