ST. MARYS — Very few would argue about the importance of Cumberland Island to the local economy in St. Marys.
The national seashore attracts about 60,000 visitors a year, with nearly three fourths of them coming from outside Camden County. They spend an estimated $2.5 million, and add millions more to the regional economy.
While city officials understand the importance of tourism to St. Marys, they also understand the importance of private property rights. They struggled with the issue Monday when they considered a resolution opposing the rezoning of any land on the barrier island that would permit construction or development.
The proposed resolution was written in response to citizens at a town hall meeting earlier this month who asked city officials to take a position on a hardship variance that would allow property owners to develop an 87-acre tract about a quarter mile from Sea Camp campground.
Council members were divided on the wording in the proposed resolution.
Councilman Bob Nutter said the tract is “in the very heart” of the area where visitors travel.
“What happens to the visitor experience?” he asked.
Councilman Jim Gant said construction on the estimated 1,000 acres of privately owned land could “totally change” the character of Cumberland Island.
“It’s our perspective. St. Marys perspective,” he said. “We have an obligation to say St. Marys believes this way.”
Councilmen Dave Reilly and Allen Rassi said it is wrong for the city to get involved with what is a county decision.
“We need to work with them and collaborate,” Reilly said.
Mayor John Morrissey said the resolution needed to be rethought, saying the issue is a “legal quagmire.”
“There are two sides to this story,” he said. “I understand what they are trying to do.”
Gant said if the city doesn’t take a position “by the time our voices are heard it could be over.”
Nutter asked what the city’s legacy will be if they don’t take a position on the issue. He also expressed concerns about how building as many as 100 new homes on the island could impact the county’s plans to establish a commercial spaceport in Camden County.
“Nobody’s going to want to shoot a rocket over 100 houses on Cumberland Island,” he said.
During a public comment period after the workshop ended and the City Council meeting began, 10 residents expressed their concerns about how construction on the island could impact the local economy.
Nutter made a motion to approve the resolution during the meeting, saying city officials need to send the resolution to make sure county commissioners know where the city stands on the issue.
“This is a pivotal issue for St. Marys,” he said.
Councilwoman Elaine Powierski said she could not support the resolution the way it was written and suggested tabling the issue and work on a new resolution that everyone could support.
Gant, agreed, saying it is important for the resolution to have unanimous support.
“I think it would be disastrous if we whittled this down or split,” he said. “We’ve got to come together. I think we are all concerned.”
Nutter agreed to withdraw his motion and table the issue until the next meeting in two weeks.
“I too agree that sending a split message, or having the mayor make the final decision takes the burden off our shoulders and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “It is the citizens of St. Marys who put us in office to make decisions like this.”