CUMBERLAND ISLAND—Members of the family who own Greyfield Inn are the second group making plans to build homes on property they own on Cumberland Island National Seashore.
The Ferguson family joins Lumar LLC, a collection of land owners who have private property within the boundaries of the barrier island, who say the want to build “a few homes” on their properties.
“Any new home will be built of for our children, grandchildren or great grandchildren,” a Ferguson family member said in a recent letter to the editor of The News.
But Bill Bruce, a member of a committee negotiating with Camden County Commission members to rezone the estimated 1,000 acres of undeveloped private property on the barrier island, said island residents are asking for a density of one house per acre, which is more than a few homes.
Walter Langshaw, a Ferguson family member, has attended the meetings on behalf of his family, Bruce said.
“They are definitely involved,” he said. “He represented to the group that he represented all the land owners on Cumberland Island with the exception of Lumar.”
Bruce said the opening offer by island residents is a “typical developer” tactic where they make an unacceptable offer hoping to get something. He said he is not optimistic supporters and opponents of new construction on the island can reach a compromise.
“My position is there should be no residential building,” he said. “I’m going to keep plugging my position.”
Bruce is among those who believe building homes on the island would violate the enabling legislation for the National Seashore.
The legislation described recreation areas that could be developed, but said the goal is to permanently preserve the seashore “in its primitive state, and no development of the project or plan for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken which would be incompatible with the preservation of the unique flora and fauna or the physiographic conditions not prevailing.”
Much of the property owned by both groups is in potential wilderness just north of Sea Camp campground, but other tracts of undeveloped private property are scattered throughout the barrier island.
The Lumar group sparked the current debate after it was granted a hardship variance by the Camden County Planning Commission in December that would have allowed them to subdivide an 88-acre tract into 10 parcels.
The decision was appealed a month later by environmental groups, tourism officials and business owners who said new homes built on a 1,100-foot swath across one of the narrowest parts of the barrier island could harm tourism and impact the island’s sensitive ecosystem.
Instead of dealing with just the Lumar tract, county officials decided they would rezone all non-federal land on the island, an estimated 1,000 acres. There are 22 fee simple private property owners on the island who could potentially build there.
Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he is among a group currently negotiating the rezoning plans with Camden County officials.
“We remain in discussions in the hopes that any rezoning conditions the county pursues are protective of the wild, natural character of the island, and that hold paramount the interests of all those who enjoy visiting the Cumberland Island National Seashore,” he said.
Both sides in the ongoing negotiations have set a June 1 deadline to reach a mutual agreement.
Don Barger, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said Cumberland Island isn’t the only national park where private property owners have wanted to develop their land.
One of the more recent private property battles happened at Zion National Park in Utah in 2012 when developers wanted to build on a 30-acre tract. Public outcry contributed to the death of those plans.
Barger said most of the national parks with private property within their boundaries are in the Eastern U.S. The land was privately owned before the national parks existed or when the parks expanded, Barger said.
There are 11,640 pieces of private land inside national parks across the nation, many with homes existing at the time or built after the parks were established. Barger said there are fewer issues in the Western U.S. because much of the land was federally owned when the parks were established.
National Park Service officials have said little about zoning issues on Cumberland Island, other than it’s a private property issue they cannot control.
Property owners say new homes will blend in with the island’s natural beauty and the homes will only be for family members. There will be a limit on new homes and there will be a buffer zone to ensure the visitor experience will not be negatively impacted.
But the island residents have not answered questions about dividing their properties into smaller and smaller tracts for family members for generations to come.
“Once you slice the island into small lots, they become commodities,” Barger said. “It puts it permanently out of reach for the National Park Service. There is a real direct result.”
Alex Kearns, chair of St. Marys EarthKeepers, expressed doubt the property will remain in the families hands in future generations.
“The island families who are seeking rezoning of 1,000 acres to allow development keep trying to convince us of all of their good intentions by speaking of the past and making promises for the future,” she said. “They say that there are no plans to build houses and sell them to others for a profit, but we’ve seen how their intentions change over the years and I find their words of little comfort.”
The possibility of construction on the island is a genuine concern to Jerry Brandon, owner of Riverview Hotel in downtown St. Marys. The majority of the hotel’s business comes from tourism related to Cumberland Island and Brandon believes more homes could hurt the business that has been in his family more than 100 years.
“The intent of national parks is to make them accessible for the common folks,” he said. “Anything you do (development wise) is contrary to the concept of a national park.”
Brandon expressed concerns construction of new homes could continue for generations.
“They shouldn’t be able to build indefinitely for grandkids, more grandkids and more grandkids,” he said. “Where does it end?”
Members of the Ferguson family did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls for comment.
The identities the owners of the Lumar tract were never revealed in 1997 when a limited liability company bought the property from the estate of Georgia Rockefeller Rose.
The lawyer representing the $3.5 million sale said the company was created to protect the identities of the group who bought the property.
Before the purchase, an Atlanta investment manager offered to buy the property and asked the National Park Service about building rental cottages and a private home on the land.
Environmental groups at the time joined together to ask the park service to ban all new development on the island. The concern was it could create a land rush on all the private property on the island.
The land was originally part of what was known as the Greyfield tract until it was divided into five parcels. Acquisition of the Greyfield tract was considered the National Park Service’s top priority in 1998.
According to a General Accounting Office study, concerns were raised after the property was subdivided, resulting in an increased apprised value of $4.5 million. The original appraisal was $15.4 million and it went up to $19.9 afterward.
“A major factor influencing the appraisal of the five tracts was an option by a private party to buy another parcel on the island with a proposed price of $4 million,” the GAO study said. “We have a concern as to whether an un-exercised option to purchase the other parcel, rather than closed sales data, should have been the major reason for the increased value of the Greylield tract.”
Total purchase price for the 1,127-acre tract was $19.4 million, with the Nature Conservancy of Georgia contributing $6 million toward that total. The remainder came from appropriations out of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The identity of the owners of the Lumar tract remained secret until they requested the hardship variance so they could build on the property. The Lumar tract is owned by members of the Warren family and the Candler family, descendants of Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler.
The Georgia Conservancy describes the possibility of numerous new homes built on the island “well beyond the scope of any development on the barrier island in the last 75 years.”
“It is also completely out-of-line with the collaborative conservation planning that has sought to maintain ecological connectivity and a uniquely unspoiled visitor experience on the island,” according to the Conservancy’s statement regarding the issue. “To put this issue in perspective for those not familiar with Cumberland Island, imagine new homes being built in the Grand Canyon or in Yosemite Valley, crown jewels of the same National Park System to which Cumberland Island belongs.”
Barger said money from the $900 million Land and Water Conservation Fund could be used to purchase private property on the island if the political will existed.
The fund was created in the 1960s with revenue paid for with offshore drilling royalties from oil companies. The money was initially used to buy up private lands in national parks when landowners decide to sell. But two-thirds of the oil money is now routinely spent by Congress on other programs, leaving the parks unable to compete with wealthy buyers.
The conservation fund is currently under a three-year extension which ends in 2018, making it unlikely the federal government could buy the property.
Securing the land by other means seems unlikely as well, Barger said.
“It’s very slim the National Park Service could exercise eminent domain right now,” he said.
If zoning is changed to allow property owners to build on the island, an appraisal of the property wouldn’t begin until next year, said Brian Bishop, deputy chief appraiser in Camden County.
The property is currently zoned agricultural conservation and isn’t valued that much on the tax rolls, he said. The properties will be difficult to value because there are no comparable homes on barrier islands with no access other than by boat.
Lot size, uniqueness of the property and the structures built will all be considered, Bishop said.
“Anything would come into play,” he said. “We’d have to look at it and see.”