The Jekyll Island, Georgia, Master Plan: A Case Study in Collaboration

by Langford D. Holbrook, AICP


Each year, more than a million people make the trip to Jekyll Island, Georgia. For many it is "the nearest faraway place" and stands as one of the most distinctive public assets in Georgia today.

Situated just a half-day's drive from Atlanta, this idyllic coastal barrier island is a place to take in striking Atlantic Ocean views, step back into history, get closer to nature, and simply relax with family. Now, owing to a collaborative and comprehensive planning effort, Jekyll Island will remain a treasure for decades to come. Jekyll Island's new master plan provides prioritized actions for the next five years and will guide decision making about the island for the next 20 years.


Jekyll Island, Georgia
Figure 1   

Jekyll Island, Georgia. Photo by Flickr user Laura Henderson (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Jekyll Island was purchased by Georgia in 1947 to establish a state park to provide residents with a place to go to the beach. Over the next 25 years, the state legislature passed laws to limit commercial and residential development and protect Jekyll's unspoiled beaches, salt marshes, and maritime forests. The most recent law, adopted in 1971, limited development to 35 percent of the island's land area at mean high tide and reserved the remaining 65 percent for conservation.

This "65/35 law," as it is referred to, could never be successfully applied. Soon after its passage, disagreements arose over the meanings of key concepts such as what constituted "development" and the definition of "land." The ever-changing geography of the coastal barrier island also made land measurement a challenge. The law's unresolved issues created acrimonious divisions that lasted decades and threatened the future of the island as a place for conservation, vacations, and recreation.

By the early 2000s, the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA), created by the state in 1950 to manage the island, began drawing strong criticism for its perceived support of commercial development proposals that appeared to some to change the conservation focus of the island. Though the plans under consideration ultimately fell through, disagreements over the island's future undercut trust among the island's many stakeholders. The 65/35 law and its impact on the balance between conservation and development were frequently at the center of the discord.

GUIDE FOR AN ISLAND'S FUTURE

JIA members recognized the importance of building a sustainable future for the island that balanced redevelopment, emphasized conservation, and limited new development, all in a way that would earn the support of its constituents. To accomplish this, a new master plan was needed. John Hunter, director of historic resources and master plan project manager at JIA, summed up the situation: "The 65/35 legislation had generated a lot of ambiguity, and there was no effective way to build consensus. Our primary goal with the new plan was to get everyone on the same page so that going forward there would be no debate about the developable area on Jekyll Island." The plan would not only have to address the issues created by the 65/35 law but also satisfy the interests of all of Jekyll's stakeholders, including local and state residents, advocacy groups, private enterprise, and developers.

The JIA issued a call for input on the future master plan process to help ensure a successful outcome. The results confirmed the need for an inclusive, collaborative, and transparent planning process with high engagement from participants. Committed to achieving these objectives, the JIA selected the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government to lead the planning effort.

The Institute of Government brought critical expertise in city and regional planning, economic development, and historic preservation to the project. Perhaps most importantly, this planning skillset was backed by strengths in mediation and conflict resolution, facilitation, and public engagement. The new master plan also would benefit from the institute's experience in drawing a broad spectrum of stakeholders into the public decision-making process.

SETTING THE STAGE FOR ENGAGEMENT

Work on the master plan began in earnest in early 2012 with five distinct stakeholder task forces covering five topics:

  • economic sustainability
  • historic and cultural resources
  • natural resources
  • transportation, infrastructure, and municipal services
  • recreation

Seats on each task force were filled through an open application process. Any individual willing to work on behalf of a strong Jekyll Island was encouraged to apply. The volunteer participants — seven to 12 per task force, for a total of nearly 60 individuals — were charged with providing close review of their respective master plan topics and outlining detailed recommendations, ensuring that each element of the plan appropriately addressed challenges and opportunities.

To maximize participation and ensure task force transparency, the institute used several techniques. Each volunteer could serve on just one task force, and the application process helped attract committed and focused participants. A professional facilitator from the Institute of Government led all task force meetings to ensure an equal voice for each participant. Members of the public were invited to attend and make comments at each of the 20 meetings.

Because it was well understood that the difficulties inherent in the 65/35 conservation-to-development ratio would significantly affect decisions made during the planning process, a sixth task force was created to focus on the 65/35 issue and related questions of land use. The JIA appointed members to the 65/35 Task Force to ensure a broad base of relevant expertise. Members included representatives from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia Conservancy, the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, the City of Brunswick, University of Georgia Marine Extension, and the JIA.

A Master Plan Steering Committee also was established that included one representative from each task force, as well as JIA staff and representatives from state and local agencies. The steering committee provided updates and recommendations to the JIA, which had the legal authority to consider the proposals and make final decisions.

From the outset, the structure of these groups ensured that the planning and decision-making process would be highly collaborative. Dozens of stakeholders from the state and local government and the private sector participated in the six task forces and the steering committee.

RESOLVING THE 65/35 CONFLICT

In April 2012, the 65/35 Task Force set out to review the current land-use definitions, best planning practices, available mapping data, and the current development map. After several months of deliberation, the task force recommended that any marsh area within the mean high tide boundary of the island not be included when calculating the land available for development. This recommendation resulted in a smaller total island size in significant contrast to past practice.

The JIA sent the recommendation to Georgia State Attorney General Sam Olens and sought an opinion on whether the proposed measurement method was allowed under existing law. After consideration, Olens disagreed with the task force's conservative interpretation, asserting that the JIA had correctly interpreted state law by counting marsh within the mean high tide boundary. Still, many Jekyll Island advocacy groups remained opposed to the interpretation of marsh as land because it would make significantly more of the island available for development.

The debate over the balance of conservation and development that the 65/35 task force had been focused on changed when it became clear that neither of the current options was acceptable to all concerned. To move away from the 65/35 ratio, a fixed acreage solution for development that would set the total developable area at 1,675 acres was proposed. This included the 1,609 acres already developed, 20 acres for use in accordance with the legislation and the JIA's discretion, and 46 acres set aside for health, public safety, or public recreation, not to include residential or commercial development. It was also agreed that when any of the currently undeveloped 66 acres was to be built upon, the JIA must solicit public and legislative input prior to finalizing any decision through the plan amendment process outlined in existing Jekyll Island legislation.

The 65/35 Task Force worked with the Institute of Government to create interactive GIS models showing overlays and boundary measurements for additional land-use clarity. The island's land-use categories were mapped and an updated system for land-use classifications, based on current national standards, was adopted.


Jekyll Island Existing Land Use, 2013
Figure 2

Jekyll Island Existing Land Use, 2013.

THE MASTER PLAN TAKES FORM

With the 65/35 debate settled through agreement on a fixed acreage method of measuring development on the island, the work of the five stakeholder task forces could begin. Each group was charged with identifying and prioritizing key issues, exploring possible solutions, and outlining potential implementation strategies. After meeting four times over the spring and summer of 2012, the task forces offered the following recommendations:

The Economic Sustainability Task Force focused on planning best practices and explored economic sustainability and capacity issues. The weak economy of the mid-2000s had affected revenues, posing a special challenge for self-sustaining Jekyll Island. Unlike other Georgia state parks, the island must obtain its operating funds for maintenance, development, improvement, and promotion from leases, fees, and island amenities instead of through taxes. For Jekyll, any reduction in tourism dollars is significant. The task force noted that a $50-million tourism makeover, begun in 2006 and aided by bonds from the state for a new convention center, would soon boost revenues, but the availability of capital will be an ongoing challenge for the island. The advisors also recommended timely completion of new and existing hospitality projects, expanded statewide partnerships, and improved ticketing and reservation systems, all to maximize future revenue streams.

The Historic and Cultural Resources Task Force set out to examine practices for managing the island's designated historical sites, archaeological sites, and National Historic Register District. The task force determined that a greater diversity of events in the historic district and rehabilitation of remaining historic buildings would increase visitation. Headway was made on both of these objectives with the aid of the multidisciplinary Jekyll Island Master Planning Summer Studio, a partnership between the Institute of Government and the University of Georgia's College of Environment and Design. During the course, graduate and undergraduate students developed design proposals to revitalize four key sites on Jekyll Island: a cottage in the historic district, the island's unused amphitheater, the last remaining portion of original ocean front road, and an underutilized water feature adjacent to the golf clubhouse. These proposals focused on making the sites usable for revenue-generating opportunities such as cultural tours and special events.

The Natural Resources Task Force worked to support the JIA in its mandate to maintain, manage, and restore natural resources and species diversity on Jekyll Island. The task force built upon and incorporated the prior work of the island's conservation plan with a comprehensive analysis of wildlife management, habitat management, sustainable practices, and the interaction between the developed and undeveloped areas of Jekyll Island. The task force highlighted the need to identify dedicated funding mechanisms to support a wide variety of natural resources initiatives.

The Transportation, Infrastructure and Municipal Services Task Force examined current island infrastructure, such as roads, bicycle paths, and wastewater systems, which the JIA provides and maintains. The task force determined that infrastructure represents a critical challenge for Jekyll with needs in the areas of water and wastewater management, public safety, street repaving, and emergency and service vehicle replacement. In line with the conclusions of other task forces, the group determined that funding would continue to be the main hurdle in making these capital improvements.

The Recreation Task Force examined current recreational opportunities on the island and made recommendations for additional activities, infrastructure, or crossover uses for current facilities and nature sites. The task force's conclusions showed themes consistent with the results of broader public and stakeholder engagement initiatives. Additional campground space, more boating and kayaking activities, and better picnic areas, in addition to upgrades for popular amenities like golf courses, tennis courts, the amphitheater, and the Summer Waves Water Park, were identified as priorities. The task force noted capital, again, as a barrier, emphasizing that development of a funding plan would be critical to the achievement of recreation project goals.

SOLUTIONS AND RESULTS

With task force recommendations fully incorporated, the updated Jekyll Island Master Plan was finalized and adopted by the Jekyll Island Authority on December 16, 2013. Focused primarily on improvements and redevelopment, the plan does not identify any areas of new development with the exception of one previously planned campground expansion.

According to John Hunter, "Everyone bought into the new fixed acreage limitation as more sensible than the percentage approach. 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."

The new master plan recommended that legislation to codify the 1,675-acre limit and supersede the existing 65/35 law be introduced for approval by the Georgia General Assembly. Representing a key success for the plan and a highly celebrated milestone for Jekyll Island's many stakeholders, the legislation was passed nearly unanimously by the state legislature. On April 14, 2014, the 1,675-acre limit was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal at a beachfront ceremony on Jekyll Island.

Moving forward with implementation of the new plan, those in charge of the island's future have turned their focus to the resounding challenge emphasized by each task force: funding. Even as positive revenues from previously initiated redevelopment projects are beginning to come in, the JIA is working to understand its fiscal future so it can chart a course for identifying and channeling new revenues into the priorities identified in the master plan.

SUCCESS THROUGH COMING TOGETHER

For the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, it was important to provide Jekyll Island with more than a static document. "The last thing we wanted to do was create a plan that just sits on a shelf," said Danny Bivins, a planner on the Institute of Government team. True to this goal, the planning effort has successfully led to a key law change and improved communication among stakeholders.

Perhaps most importantly, the JIA now has a good sense of where it must direct its focus both in the short and long term. "I don't think we could have found any other team that would have helped us through the process as much as the people at the Institute of Government did," Hunter said.

The master planning process guided by the Institute of Government is a case study in how to address a long-standing, controversial issue through an inclusive, facilitated process. Stakeholders on all sides of the issue were able to freely discuss their concerns, ideas, and aspirations for a place they truly value. The Jekyll Island experience shows that a transparent and fact-based dialog between those of opposing views can result in real solutions for positive change and progress.

Langford D. Holbrook is a community planning and project management expert with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government who served as project manager for the Jekyll Master Plan.


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