SAVANNAH, Georgia — A decades-old state law passed to protect Jekyll Island's unspoiled beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests seems simple enough, limiting development of hotels, golf courses and other amenities to just 35 percent of the island's land area.
But a task force assigned to make recommendations about the coastal state park's future has raised questions the 1971 law fails to answer clearly: Exactly how large is the island? And should any of its 1,750 acres of marsh, the swampy tracts of tall grasses between the water and the island's western shore, be counted as land?
In a report last month, the advisory group of island staff, conservationists and coastal residents concluded Jekyll Island long ago exceeded its maximum footprint for development. The task force report says the island's total land area is smaller than previously believed, because park officials for decades wrongly included hundreds of acres of marsh in their calculations. The conclusions were so jarring that the Jekyll Island Authority, the agency that operates the state-owned island, immediately forwarded the report to Georgia's attorney general for a second opinion.
"They're upset about this because it has a direct impact on the number of acres available for development in the future," said David Egan, an island resident and task force member who also heads the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park, a group that's favored limited island development. "Even if they've done it a different way all along, I don't think repeating a past mistake makes it right."
Jekyll Island Authority spokesman Eric Garvey insisted the agency has yet to take a position — though a copy of the report sent to Attorney General Sam Olens' office included an attached two-page summary containing some rebuttal of the group's conclusions. He said the authority hopes to get a response by its next board meeting May 20.
"At this point in time there is no dispute," Garvey said. "We're not sure this complies with the law and have sent it to the attorney general to get his advice before we even consider it."
The question over Jekyll Island's size comes as the authority is working on a new master plan to guide future conservation, maintenance and development. The last such plan was done 17 years ago.
Wealthy northern industrialists owned Jekyll Island and used it as a secluded winter getaway until 1947, when Georgia officials bought the island and opened a state park there. The Georgia Legislature in 1971 passed the law mandating that 65 percent of the island remain undeveloped.
That hasn't been much of a problem. When Jekyll Island's last master plan was completed in 1996, it found that 108 acres remained open to new construction.
Officials also point out that no new acreage has been used in Jekyll Island's $50 million tourism makeover that included a new convention center and beachside park, with plans for two convention hotels and a retail village to soon follow. All of those amenities are being built on previously developed land where old construction was razed.
In fact, Jekyll Island has cleared little if any undeveloped land for new construction in four decades. The island went 36 years without a new hotel after a Holiday Inn was built in 1972 — and it was torn down to make room for new lodging seven years ago. The last of Jekyll's four golf courses was developed in 1975, and its newest homes were built in the 1970s.
"Whatever development was done that went over the 35-percent limit was done a long time ago," said Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy, which had a seat on the task force. Georgia's Democratic lieutenant governor from 1991 to 1998, Howard said he believes any development over the legal limit was unintentional. "There has never been a proper measurement of that island."
How Jekyll Island's land area gets measured is critical. The 1971 law restricts construction to "not more than 35 percent of the land area of Jekyll Island which lies above water at mean high tide."
What the law doesn't do is define what counts as "land." The Jekyll Island Authority for decades has included not just the island's upland areas, but also any marsh above a designated high tide mark. The island's last master plan concluded its total land area was 4,226 acres. It also found that 32 percent of the land had been developed.
Chosen to make recommendations on development issues for Jekyll Island's 2013 master plan, the task force arrived at a smaller land area of 3,817 acres after deciding marsh shouldn't be counted. It also recommended that golf course ponds, dirt roads and bike paths previously classified as undeveloped land should be considered developed. With those changes, the panel concluded the island is actually 38 percent developed — or about 136 acres over the legal limit.
Both sides agree that state law says the Jekyll Island Authority would face no penalties; it would just have to make sure future construction is restricted to land that's already been developed.
Both Howard and Egan said they're concerned island officials want to use the 2013 master plan to enlarge the amount of land open to new development. Documents the state authority sent to the attorney general include notes from a Jekyll Island staff member saying an alternate method of measuring the island "would result in Jekyll Island being 5,542.6 acres" — a number much larger than the 1996 land area and would yield more than 460 acres open to new construction.
Garvey, the authority's spokesman, said the staff member's notes weren't intended to suggest the island's governing board believes the larger figure is correct.
The former state lawmaker who wrote the 1971 law restricting Jekyll Island development said the statute may be unclear, but he never intended for marsh to be counted as part of the island's land area.
Mike Egan, an Atlanta attorney who served for two decades as a Republican legislator in the state House and Senate, said he has sent a letter to the attorney general.
"I thought we made it clear in the act, but I guess that we did not," Egan said. "I just think that land is dry land, not marsh."