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The Jekyll Island Master Plan: A Case Study in Collaboration

October 16, 2014
Governor Deal signing the 1,675-acre limit into law

Each year, more than a million people visit Jekyll Island, a state-owned coastal barrier island and “the nearest faraway place” for many Georgians. But for decades, a difficult formula governing how much of Jekyll’s land could be developed was the source of controversy that threatened the island as a place for conservation, vacations and recreation.

The controversial formula was part of a law adopted in 1971 that limited development to 35% of the island’s land area at high tide and reserved the remaining 65% for conservation. The “65/35 law,” as it was known, quickly created disagreements over the meanings of concepts such as “development” and “land”:

Should salt marshes that flood at high tide be considered “land”? Are tree-lined golf course fairways really “development”? The ever-changing geography of the sandy, low-lying island also made land measurement a challenge.

“The 65/35 legislation had generated a lot of ambiguity, and there was no effective way to build consensus,” said John Hunter, director of historic resources and master plan project manager at the The Jekyll Island Authority (JIA).

JIA, created by the state in 1950 to manage the island, asked the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government to help draft a new master plan for the island in 2011. JIA members wanted a management plan that balanced redevelopment, emphasized conservation and limited new development — all in a way that would earn public support. They worked with the Governor’s Office, the Georgia General Assembly and groups such as the Georgia Conservancy to put to rest the conservation versus development conflict.

A task force working on the new master plan proposed replacing the 65/35 law with a solution that would set the total area of Jekyll Island that could be developed at 1,675 acres. The task force worked with the Institute of Government to create interactive models showing overlays and boundary measurements to identify the developed and developable land.

“Everyone bought into the new fixed acreage solution as more sensible than the 65/35 approach,” Hunter said. “The acreage limit gives us some future flexibility but is heavily restricted. Now, no one has any questions, and the rules are clear to all involved.”

With the 65/35 debate settled, work turned to drafting a plan to guide decisions about Jekyll Island management for the next 20 years.

The Institute worked with JIA to organize 5 committees to investigate revenue and aesthetic issues. Nearly 60 volunteers worked hard to recommend long-term action plans that will guide Jekyll Island management decisions. Recommendations included improved ticketing and reservation systems to maximize revenue as well as expanding or upgrading existing recreational opportunities on the state-owned island.

The task force recommendations and the fixed acreage solution were incorporated in the new Jekyll Island Master Plan, which JIA approved Dec. 16, 2013.

The new master plan recommended adopting legislation to codify the 1,675-acre development limit and supersede the existing 65/35 law. State legislators introduced 2 bills — 1 in the House and 1 in the Senate — and quickly gained nearly unanimous approval. On April 14, 2014, the 1,675-acre limit was signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal at a beachfront ceremony on Jekyll Island.

The planning process guided by the Institute of Government shows how to address a long-standing controversial issue through an inclusive, facilitated process. Everyone was able to freely discuss their concerns, ideas and aspirations for a place they truly value. The Jekyll Island experience shows that good communication between opposing views can result in real solutions and progress.

About the Author

Langford D. Holbrook, a community planning and project management expert with UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, served as project manager for the Jekyll Master Plan. An AICP Certified Planner, he has led projects in the areas of community planning and visioning, strategic planning, and implementation strategy development with clients from state, regional and local governments; nonprofit organizations; and public-private partnerships.

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