The Bulldozing Speaker

Neely Young

As the manufacturing sector continues to shrink, Georgia must attract “smart” jobs, yet it will be a long time before the state’s public education system is nationally competitive.

Fortunately, the state has another significant attractor: Georgia’s natural resources, especially its carefully-preserved coast, set it apart from other states, appealing to “smart” industries like science and technology. Unfortunately, those resources are now at risk and so, in turn, are the jobs of tomorrow they would bring our state.

I have a home on East Beach, St. Simons. This is the area where one of the most powerful Georgia legislators, Speaker of the House of Representatives Glenn Richardson (R-Dallas), wants to use his unusual influence to build his dream beach house. Under today’s rules he can’t build a home there because the location is on sandy property the courts have ruled is accreted land, where sand on the beach dynamically interchanges with the sand from inshore, inlet shoals, submerged beach and offshore sand bars. This interchange is referred to as the “sand-sharing system” in which God and nature create the property, and God and nature can take it away. Any new construction will damage the beach ecosystem, the court ruled.

The speaker is planning to challenge this ruling all the way to the Supreme Court. His intentions have infuriated the East Beach neighborhood. Neighbors are in the process of asking for contributions to raise $150,000 the amount in estimated legal fees that will be needed to fight Richardson’s actions in court. I will contribute.

Richardson and his friend and fellow legislator Jerry Keen, a Republican representative from St. Simons, recently went around normal procedure and arranged a visit with two Glynn County commissioners and the county attorney to determine if the commissioners would support an application for a building permit on the land. It was described as a friendly visit, but the direct question coming from such a high source had to carry some vestige of a threat. The commissioners declined to support him.

After the meeting an East Beach couple sent the speaker an e-mail that asked, in so many words, that he not build on the accreted property. The writers told him that many homes are available in the area that would not be a direct threat to the beach, and said they hoped something could be worked out before the newspapers began writing about the situation.

Richardson’s e-mail response clearly lays out his intentions. He apparently believes that objection to his building plans has to do with the fact that East Beach residents would not have a recreational easement that would allow them to walk to the beach.

But Speaker Richardson is off base in his belief. The residents’ objection is that in the short run, the area he wants to bulldoze might not endanger the beach; but in the long run, as sand and tides do their work and beach erosion occurs, the effects of his actions could destroy the beach.

His e-mail response to the residents reads in part: “Now, as to your final comments as to whether a newspaper learns of something: I seldom bow to pressure or threats. More often than not, if I feel that I am correct, and if someone issues a veiled threat to me or my family, I dig in for the long haul.”

There are nine sections of any beach, as documented by Taylor Schoettle in his book, A Naturalist’s Guide to St. Simons Island. If you take a walk to the beach on St. Simons from the end of Eighth Street on East Beach, you will first encounter the Maritime Climax Forest with a mix of Southern yellow pines, laurel oak, ball moss and Spanish moss. The trail through this part of the forest makes you feel as though you are walking through a cathedral, and is the most beautiful part of the ocean beach. This is the part of the beach that Speaker Richardson wants to bulldoze to build his cottage.

The next stages are the Shrub Forest and Shrub Zone, where the forest opens up and blue sky appears overhead. The beach is still in the distance, and the sand is as soft as can be. If you are lucky you might see a small jackrabbit scamper by. Deer have been spotted by people who have taken this path.

Next is the Inter-dune Meadow. As you continue, the path rises to the Primary Dune and the view opens up to reveal a beautiful expanse of beach and ocean. The sea oats there provide stability to the dunes, along with sandspur, beach elder and cord grass.

Finally you are on the beach, which contains four more sections called the Upper Beach, Intertidal Beach, Submerged Beach and Off Shore Sand Bar. All nine of these sections are bound together in a dynamic equilibrium.

Today a home close to the Maritime Climax Forest and Shrub Forest sections in the area in question might not impact the sand-sharing system. This is the question the courts will decide. But if there is beach erosion in the next 15 or 20 years, the sand where Richardson’s cottage and other new cottages are constructed will not be available and the beach could disappear.

One has only to look south behind the King and Prince Hotel to see what could happen. In that location the beach has disappeared at mid- and high-tide, replaced by large boulders called “Johnson Rocks,” placed there long ago at the direction of President Lyndon Johnson to help protect nearby homes.

Other facts are interesting. According to newspaper accounts, the speaker is not paying cash for the property, but trading it out for legal fees for the court challenge. There are up to eight additional lots available for construction on the land in question; according to recent sales figures, they might sell for about $1.5 million per lot. The other property owners have millions of dollars at stake; perhaps they feel paying the speaker’s legal fees by giving him a free lot is a small price overall.

It’s a nice package. If Richardson wins, he can receive the property with no cash payment. He will be free to bulldoze the property to build his home. The other lots can also be bulldozed for new homes. It’s all legal. But, sadly for the speaker, the local wildlife will disappear, he will not have any friendly neighbors to sit on his porch and he might be surprised to find that the beach in front of his house will wash away one day.

As a St. Simons resident, I am personally disturbed by the speaker’s plans. As a Georgian, however, I fear they could set a bad precedent, undermining three decades of work to protect the coast, repelling the “smart” employers we so badly need, and depriving future generations of one of the Southeast’s finest natural resources. This could become a cautionary tale of how the quality of life we so take for granted could vanish at the whim of an influential politician, just like that if we let it.

Categories: Neely Young