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Altamaha Riverkeeper
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Georgia's Coastal Salt Marshes
Does the public really own them?

By The Altamaha Riverkeeper, James Holland

The State of Georgia General Assembly enacted the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act in 1970 that states:

The General Assembly finds and declares that the coastal marshlands of Georgia comprise a vital resource system. It is recognized that the estuarine area of Georgia is the habitat of many species of marine life and wildlife and without the food supplied by the marshlands, such marine life and wildlife cannot survive. The General Assembly further finds that intensive marine research has revealed that the estuarine marshlands of coastal Georgia are among the richest providers of nutrients in the world. Such marshlands provide a nursery for commercially and recreationally important species of shellfish and other wildlife, provide a great buffer against flooding and erosion, and help control and disseminate pollutants. Also, it is found that the coastal marshlands provide a natural recreation resource that has become vitally linked to the economy of Georgia's coastal zone and to that of the entire state. The General Assembly further finds that this coastal marshlands resource system is costly, if not impossible, to reconstruct or rehabilitate once adversely affected by man related activities and is importantto conserve for the present and future use and enjoyment of all citizens and visitors to this state. The General Assembly further finds that the coastal marshlands are a vital area of the state and are essential to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of all the citizens of the state.

Therefore, the General Assembly declares that the management of the coastal marshlands has more than local significance, is of equal importance to ALL citizens of the state, is of state-wide concern, and consequently is properly a matter for regulation under the police power of the state. The General Assembly further finds and declares that activities and structures in the coastal marshlands must be regulated to ensure that the values and functions of the coastal marshlands are not impaired and to fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as public trustees of the coastal marshlands for succeeding generations.

Recently, as part of his wish list for the new 2005 Georgia General Assembly, the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce President was quoted in The Brunswick News saying he wanted the Department of Natural Resources' permitting regulations to be relaxed for developments near wetlands.

I would like to share a few scientific studies that suggest reasons why permitting regulations should be strictly enforced, not relaxed. I am using research data from out of state because Georgia has no research data relating to development around salt marshes. In fact the Coastal Resources Division (CRD) staff and the Coastal MarshlandsProtection Committee (CMPC), agencies charged with the issuance of permits for structures and other things that alter coastal marshlands, did not have this research data until I provided it.

The following data is from South Carolina and especially good because the research was done on the lower half of South Carolina's coastal marine area, which is practically identical ecologically to Georgia's coastal marshlands.

This photo shows only one of 4 condos to be built on the site on the  Darien River

Effect of human development on bacteriological water quality in coastal watersheds

The above is the title of a study done in 2000 by the Center for Marine Science of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, N.C.

An excerpt from the abstract states;

The most important anthropogenic (human affecting) factor associated with fecal coliform abundance is the percentage of the watershed's impervious surface coverage, which consists of roofs, roads, driveways, sidewalks, and parking lots. These surfaces serve to concentrate and convey storm waterborne pollutants to downstream receiving waters.

A more recent research paper (2004) published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 298 (2004) 151-178 by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Marine Resources Research Institute, Charleston, S.C. states:

Abstract: Twenty-three headwater tidal creeks draining watersheds, representative of forested, suburban, and industrial land covers were sampled along the South Carolina coast from 1994 to 2002. One of their research goals to evaluate the degree to which impervious land cover is an integrative watershed scale indicator of stress, states; "This data suggests that for rainfall events of similar magnitude the volume of runoff was 3-25 times greater in the developed watersheds studied than in the forested watersheds".

These research studies, done by two different Marine Research programs at two different locations, were basically studying the negative impact of development on estuarine creek systems. Both research institutes reached the same conclusion: improper development in coastal watersheds can and will impact the ecology of these very important systems. There was no information in the research documents that stated not to develop in these watersheds.

However, there was extensive information on:
  • Reducing the amount of impervious surfaces
  • Increasing the amount of green space in the developed areas
  • Controlling storm water runoff by using natural and constructed wetlands and grassy swales to help assimilate pollutants prior to them reaching the estuary

In other words, the studies stress development that incorporates protection for natural resources.

End of research and back to reality.

The new Darien Waterfront - New Condo, New Oyster Bar, New Restaurant

Not only does the President of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce wish that regulations would be relaxed for developments, any day now, we anticipate the Coastal Resource Division Director to renew efforts to promote the adoption of a rule change proposed by CRD that could alter the way salt marsh jurisdictions are determined. While CRD's Assistant Director of Ecological Services publicly introduced the proposal to make minor changes in the Coastal Marshland Protection Act and Shore Protection Act to enable consistent and predictable regulation, a review of the proposal reveals significant changes that could further weaken the protection of salt marshes.

Let's take a look at how the Marsh Act defines Coastal Marshlands: coastal marshlands or marshlands means any marshland intertidal area, mud flat, tidal water bottom, or salt marsh in the State of Georgia within the estuarine area of the state, whether or not the tidewaters reach the littoral (shore or coastal region) areas through natural or artificial watercourses. Vegetated Marshlands shall include those areas upon which grow one, but not necessarily all, of the following and the definition goes on to name all 14 different vegetated species considered as salt marsh.

The CRD rule change proposal contains this change in language; "Vegetated marshlands characterized by a prevalence (more than 50%) of one or more of the species identified above" (the list of 14 named salt marsh plants currently listed in the rules).

At first glance, this language appears to be harmless enough. However, taking a more in depth look makes it a very dangerous proposition to the health of the entire salt marsh ecosystem. Currently an area only has to have one of the specified salt marsh plants in it to be protected. With the proposed rule change, the area has to contain 50% coverage with the salt marsh plant to be protected. Georgia has no state freshwater wetland protection laws, only saltwater protection laws (under the Marshland Protection Act.) This rule change could eliminate large areas of salt marsh and adjacent buffer by eliminating them from regulation under the Coastal Marshland Protection Act. The new language could open up areas to development that reach out into the salt marshes. The only wetland protection laws we have in Georgia are federal laws through the Federal Clean Water Act's Section "404" permitting process, regulated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE). It is very easy to get a Section "404" wetland fill permit for building.

Currently it is virtually impossible to get a permit to destroy and fill salt marsh under the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, if it is applied properly. Filling the marsh is generally set aside for roads and utility lines, things that are necessary for the public's welfare. In the past, development activities for sub divisions requiring the loss of salt marsh would not be issued a permit because they could not pass the public interest review test, which says:

"If the project is not water related or dependent on waterfront access or can be satisfied by the use of an alternative non marshland site or by use of existing public facilities, a permit usually should NOT be granted"

Whether there are parallels and politics between the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce "wishlist" and CRD's proposal to relax restrictions is not known. However, if the CRD is successful in passing this new proposal it will:

  • weaken and relax DNR's marshland protection laws and
  • permit areas for development that would be denied under the current regulation of the Coastal Marshland Protection Committee.
Let me call attention to one of the largest and most recent "boon doggles" allowed by the Coastal Marshland Protection Committee. It is in Darien on the waterfront and known as Settler's Bluff, a development consisting of a restaurant, oyster bar, dock complex, parking, 42 condominium units and a pool. When complete, this high density development will occupy less than 3 acres of waterfront property, a large portion of which is filled marshland. There is also what has been inaccurately referred to as a "*public marina" on the site, owned by the condominium owners.

* I use the word " public marina " because that is the name tagged on it by the developers and the Marshland Protection Committee. There is no boat launch attached to these so-called marina docks. The docks have 42 boat slips and are behind a locked gate. I'll let you the reader use your imagination as to what is taking place here. There are 42 condo units and the docking slips are to be leased on a first come first serve basis. Again the Act is very clear; if the project is not water related or dependent on waterfront access or can be satisfied by the use of an alternative non marshland site or by use of existing public facilities, a permit usually should not be granted pursuant to Code Section 12-5-286.

Since when are condominiums water related or water dependent?

A long time native family from McIntosh County originally owned this site where they operated a shrimp dock and shrimp packing facility. Back in the early 90's they had the idea of putting a public marina on the site and obtained a permit to fill the marshland to accommodate the marina. Public marinas do pass the public interest review test and that is how he managed to get a permit to fill the marsh and construct an extensive dock system. Time passed and the public marina was never built and as the owner aged he decided to sell out and retire.

In September 2001 the Director of Darien's newly formed Downtown Development Authority (DDA) proposed an economic development project for this site that would be initiated and stimulated by public grants but developedand controlled by private developers. This public-private partnership set forth a grand scheme to revitalize downtown Darien with a restaurant, shopping complex, additional docks and a 42 unit private condominium complex and swimming pool. The DDA initially proposed and secured a $500,000 One Georgia Grant as the incentive to get the developers to "do the deal". Other public funds such as economic incentive grants and money for docks were secured for various aspects of the project, but the normal CRD public review and regulatory oversight that should accompany a project of this nature never occurred.

ARK and others repeatedly asked CRD to follow the law and review the new project before transferring the dock permit to the new owners. CRD & the CMPC ignored correspondence and public requests for review of this project, in spite of the fact that their own attorney stated that if the original project had changed, a review was necessary before transferring the permit.

"To secure their required profit margin" the developers of Settler's Bluff packed 5 condo buildings on a small site of less than 2 acres (including the fill site). The developers requested and the Corp of Engineers granted a permit modification for the site to allow two condo units to be located directly on the site that was marsh less than 20 years ago. The entire site is subject to standing water and flooding with even modest rains. Construction of the condos required hundreds of loads of additional fill dirt be added to the site. When the Corp granted the permit modification based on the developer's argument of financial necessity, in ARK's opinion, the Corp failed in their regulatory responsibility to the public by opening the door for a project that is ill suited to its location. The ultimate financial and environmental impact of this condo project to the Darien community, the Darien River, and adjacent landowners is still unfolding.

The City of Darien has a height ordinance that restricts buildings to a maximum height of 35 feet. As a condition of purchasing the property and going forward with the project, the developers sought and received a height variance from the City of Darien allowing them to build the condo unit buildings 45 feet high. Three 45 feet high buildings are currently under construction, with two buildings left to go. These looming box like structures have darkened and blocked the river view along Broad Street, the street closest to the river. Prior to the condominiums, all the residents and businesses along Broad Street had a beautiful view of the Darien Waterfront, docked shrimp boats, the wide expanse of marsh and river and spectacular sunsets. Beyond the immediate impact, the former river views from other residential streets are now blocked as well. Before, where there was an expansive view of the Darien River and marsh system, now there is darkness.

To realize what this really means you need to understand one of the main reason why people live on Georgia's coast. Many new and long time residents bought property and made their homes here simply for the view, which they consider sacred. They love to see the sun rise and set on the vast area of marsh and river.

The General Assembly recognized this when the Georgia Coastal Marshlands Protection Act was written and included restraints to protect the rights of adjoining riparian landowners. These excerpts are taken from the Marshland Protection Act:

12-5-288. Restriction on granting of permit; size restriction; activities and structures considered contrary to public interest.

(1) Filing of marshlands for residential, commercial, and industrial uses

7) Construction of structures that constitute an obstruction of view to adjoining riparian landowners, including signs and enclosures;

The Coastal Marshland Protection Committee should enforce the law. They should review the impact to not only the ecosystem but to the upland development as well. This includes the individual property rights of the people who own property and live in this area. Clearly, it is in the Committee's responsibility to look at upland impacts, the Act is very clear in this respect. In my opinion, the Committee's failure to do its job properly in this case certainly appears to have violated the law and the individual homeowner's rights.

This article only relates a few instances of what I believe to be bad judgment in permitting projects along Georgia's Coast. When issuing permits for docks for development, the CMPC has a history of refusing to consider upland development impacts on the salt marsh systems of Georgia. In 2001 and 2002 legal challenges were filed that affirmed CMPC 's responsibility to consider the upland impacts of a project before granting permits to impact the marsh but the committee appears to be ignoring these rulings.

Is our Coastal Marshland Protection Committee out of control? Are they doing their job? Aren't they supposed to be working for us? Does the Committee care about our natural resources and individual property rights? If you care about the long-term protection of the Georgia coast, you need to be asking these questions and getting answers.

Georgia needs to maintain strong protection for our coastal marshland. Please contact your state senator and representative and ask them to support strong protection on issues that affect our marsh, such as, upland impact, density, and storm water run off. Ask them to oppose any efforts to weaken the CMPC or buffer laws that allow construction closer to the water. Some coastal developers are working hard to create greater short-term profits for their developments by weakening marsh protection regulations. Your help is needed now to bring reason to this discussion. It is our coast and we must all act now to protect it.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper is working to protect and restore the Altamaha from its headwaters in the Ocmulgee, Oconee, and the Ohoopee to its terminus at the Atlantic Coast. You can help. Please join ARK online or send a tax-deductible donation to Altamaha Riverkeeper, P. O. Box 2642, Darien, GA, 31305. Become a part of our volunteer network of citizens taking action to protect our rivers. Help keep Georgia's largest watershed clean and safe so it will support healthy populations of people, fish, and wildlife.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper is working to protect and restore the Altamaha from its headwaters in the Ocmulgee, Oconee, and the Ohoopee to its terminus at the Atlantic Coast.

Become a part of our volunteer network of citizens taking action to protect our rivers. Help keep Georgia's largest watershed clean and safe so it will support healthy populations of people, fish, and wildlife.
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