Court Upholds Coastal Marsh Protections on Wilmington Island
A state court ruled yesterday that Georgia’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee violated the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act when it failed to require a needs assessment justifying a private marina in state marshlands on Wilmington Island, east of Savannah, Georgia. The legal challenge was brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, and Savannah Riverkeeper.
“As one of the state’s most valuable natural resources, Georgia’s coastal marshlands shouldn’t be disturbed unless there’s an established public need to do so,” said Nate Hunt, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This ruling is a win for all the citizens of Georgia because it makes clear that before a marina is built in the public’s marsh, the law requires a demonstration of need for the marina and additional boat slips.”
On December 16, 2011, the committee granted a permit to Bull River Bluff Properties, LLC, to construct a marina to serve its existing Bull River Bluff condominium development. The marina included a walkway extending over three football fields long through marshlands along the Bull River in east Chatham County.
“The Bull River is one of the few places left in Georgia where a citizen can still safely harvest oysters and the construction of a marina close by poses risks to the oyster beds,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah Riverkeeper. “The court’s ruling helps ensure protection of a water resource that all citizens have right to use.”
Even though the applicant never submitted the needs assessment that the committee requested, the committee still granted the marina permit. The committee previously stated that satisfying the needs assessment requirement was important since several marinas, including one next door to the proposed marina, are located on or near Wilmington Island.
“Clearly, the Committee chose to ignore a critical aspect of the act, which is a demonstrated need for a proposed dock or facility,” said Emily Markesteyn, Ogeechee Riverkeeper. “Why they ultimately decided to grant a permit without this needs assessment, after obvious acknowledgement and discussion, we will never know. What’s important is that the law is being upheld.”
To gain a permit for a new boating facility in the state’s marshlands, the Marshlands Protection Act requires an applicant to demonstrate a need for the proposed facility, including a showing that the applicant’s demand cannot be satisfied by existing boating facilities serving the public.
“We think it’s important that the permitting agency follows its own rules in making permitting decisions and that there is a valid unmet need to justify any construction that affects tidal marshes,” said David Kyler, Center for a Sustainable Coast.
Coastal groups challenged the permit contending that the committee’s decision to issue a permit despite recognizing the applicant’s failure to demonstrate a need for the marina is a violation of the Marshlands Protection Act. The administrative law judge agreed, holding that “if existing facilities can satisfy the applicant’s need, the applicant cannot justify a marina of any size. The rule therefore requires an applicant to demonstrate that an unfulfilled need for additional slips exists.”