(SAVANNAH) – Living in coastal Georgia has many benefits and among the most valuable are access to and enjoyment of the public’s resources – the marshes, wetlands, rivers, streams, and beaches. According to experts, Georgians are losing access to and enjoyment of too many of those resources due to inappropriate and sometimes illegal development.
At times, they say, Georgia law is simply inadequate to protect those resources, putting assets at risk that contribute millions of dollars to the area’s economy – through tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, and other outdoor activities. Tourism provides two billion dollars annually to the coastal Georgia economy, according to the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The Georgia coast supports multimillion dollar commercial and recreational fishing industries.
In some cases, unregulated development and lax enforcement cause permanent, irreversible damage to these resources and diminish the economic benefit derived from their use. The old cliché that no man is an island is even more true of property. Experts explain that changes made to one person’s property can cause real damage to a neighbor’s property or to the natural landscapes and areas shared by all Georgians.
“Neighboring states do a better job of protecting their resources through enactment and enforcement of state laws,” says David Pope, Director of the Georgia/Alabama office of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). Many people assume that laws and rules will protect the public’s resources in Georgia, and that state and local agencies will prevent rule-breaking or unwise permitting. But, Pope says, don’t count on it.
Unfortunately, low (and getting lower) budgets coupled with understaffing make enforcement of important protections scattered at best. Then there is the added issue of politics. “Favored groups are able to fill their own pockets at the public’s expense,” Pope said. “And the laws and regulations themselves are sometimes inadequate.”
“Our job is to protect the public’s interest in the public’s resources,” said Pope. Working to defend the public and never for private gain, SELC provides legal services without charge to other environmental organizations and advocacy groups. “We represent most of the non-profit environmental groups on the coast,” says Pope, “including the river and coast protection groups who are doing their best to protect what we have.”
Dana Braun, local attorney and former City of Savannah alderman, said protecting the area is important.
“As citizens of coastal Georgia we are very fortunate to have the SELC acting to protect our remarkable coastal environment and ecological system,” Braun said. “I have known and worked with several of the SELC attorneys for numerous years. They are some of the finest lawyers in Georgia and they approach these environmental issues in a diligent and highly professional manner. Their concern for the coastal environment is genuine and they are able to respond and act on environmental issues that for one reason or another the government has not acted upon.”
At the state level, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is charged with responsibility for enforcing the state’s environmental laws. The enforcement of some of those state laws is relegated to some local jurisdictions to enforce. Because of differing approaches by EPD and some local jurisdictions, application of the same state law can vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A good example of inconsistent application of environmental laws is enforcement of the state’s law requiring a minimum vegetative buffer of 25 feet along all state waters.
“All state waters, including marshes, are supposed to be protected by a buffer,” says Nate Hunt, an attorney with SELC. “Unfortunately, however, some jurisdictions – Glynn County, for example – refuse to enforce a buffer on the marsh. Although EPD has the right to make local jurisdictions enforce state law in a uniform way, it does not always do so – Glynn County being a case in point,” Hunt says.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with processing requests for federal permits to dredge or fill wetlands. To obtain a permit to dredge or fill wetlands requires showing why the activity needs to be conducted in the wetlands, and needs to include specific steps to minimize the harm, as well as steps for mitigation of the harm. Certain activities involving dredging or filling wetlands are exempt from permitting requirements. These activities include certain types of silviculture (forestry) and agricultural activities, such as construction of farm ponds.
“Unfortunately, what we have seen on the Georgia coast is abuse of the silviculture and agricultural exemptions,” says Bill Sapp, a wetlands expert with SELC. Some unscrupulous developers will dredge or fill wetlands under the guise of silviculture or agriculture when the activity is really to install infrastructure or amenities for development,” Sapp explains.
These activities are often conducted on property that is out of public view, so the damage to wetlands and the surrounding environment may be done before anyone notices it.
“We have recently obtained some very strong decisions in the federal court that make it clear that the exemptions are very limited and are not to be abused. Violations can lead to heavy penalties – up to $37,500 per day,” says Catherine Wannamaker, who leads SELC’s coastal litigation team.
“At the root of our cases,” says Pope, “is an effort to get the agencies to enforce existing law and hold violators accountable and therefore get the word out that the law must be obeyed. It is unfortunate that environmental groups have to do the job that the agencies are supposed to do, but that’s the way it is. And, of course, there will always be those who will get away with whatever they can.”
Some actions that are easily prevented cause the most damage. For example, it is widely recognized by experts that the sedimentation of streams and rivers from poor erosion and sediment control practices and inadequate stormwater management can cause large deposits of sediment miles downstream.
“The concept of the law is very simple: keep sediment on your own property and keep it out of the stream.” says SELC attorney Nate Hunt. “Developments far upstream that do not adhere to Georgia’s erosion and sedimentation laws can make the coastal rivers run red from the dirt washing off of developments. The dirt then settles on the bottom and forms sand bars and deltas that damage the ecosystem in the rivers and also impact connected water systems downstream, such as marshes.”
Another example of a state resource under threat is the marsh, which was made famous in the Sidney Lanier poem, “The Marshes of Glynn.” The majority of the state’s marshes are held by Georgia for the benefit of all state residents.
“To be clear, the state does not own the marsh as it owns a state office building,” explains Catherine Wannamaker of SELC. “The state is the trustee of the public’s interest in the marshes.
“Georgia is unique in having the coastal marshlands, a tremendous asset, bringing millions of dollars to the area’s economy from activities such as tourism and commercial fishing, and also serving other valuable economic functions such as flood protection,” Wannamaker said. “The quality of life near the coast helps attract new businesses and makes hiring and retention easier for employers.
“Marshes are not only an environmental asset, they are also an economic asset and should be protected,” Wannamaker said.
But the marsh faces threats from inappropriate development that does not abide by the law, and from some inadequacies in Georgia law meant to protect it. In Georgia, for example, the state routinely permits docks of 1000 feet to be built over the public’s marshes, solely for the benefit of one property owner. In fact, the state is trying to make it easier to permit these long, community and commercial docks and marinas.
“These long docks harm the marsh,” explains Bill Sapp, an SELC attorney. “They cause the marsh underneath the dock to receive less sunlight, an effect called marsh shading. Also, the long docks change how marsh wrack (dead marsh grass) accumulates and dramatically increases the area of marsh impact. Normally, the wrack is pushed by tides to the banks. Accumulating by the docks instead, it kills off the plants and harms the ecosystem underneath.”
“Based on what we have observed, we believe these long docks have a substantial environmental impact, not to mention the impediment they create to navigation,” said Sapp, adding that more research is needed to discover the full impact. “It has a major impact in the area by the dock. The cumulative impacts need to be addressed before more long docks are built,” says Sapp. In the most egregious cases, inappropriate docks can impair boat navigation, cause pollution and can affect where people can fish, cast and crab. “When the marsh becomes riddled with long docks, everyone’s rights are invaded and everyone loses,” Sapp said.
Marshland acts as a nursery, with many commercially important fish spending a significant part of their life in the marsh. “A large percentage of the seafood we eat spends some part of its life in the marsh,” Sapp said. In addition to beauty and recreation, the Georgia coast’s wetlands provide a cleansing sponge for stormwater runoff.
Unlike Georgia, South Carolina has a specific law to protect its marsh islands from bridge construction.
Non-marsh wetlands are another example of Georgia doing less to protect public resources than nearby states. Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and North Carolina all have state programs that protect certain wetlands that are not protected by the Federal wetlands program. But Georgia offers no such protection. In this state, for instance, isolated wetlands (those not close enough to or connected to larger waterways) can be filled and developed at will. In addition to ecological harm, that development can cause economic harm. Houses built in these filled isolated wetlands have been flooded out. Others have suffered cracked slabs or have lawns that are covered with crayfish chimneys.
“It is an age-old property law principle that one cannot manage one’s property in a way that’s going to damage other people’s, whether it’s private or public,” Sapp said. For instance, one cannot build a road through wetlands if that road is going to block floodwaters from passing, thus causing flooding on a neighbor’s land. The population of the 10-county area of the coastal region is expected to increase 51 percent by 2030, according to a 2006 study by Georgia Tech and Coastal Georgia Regional Development Center. Chatham County’s population is projected to increase 32.5 percent between 2000 and 2030. Some local leaders expect growth to exceed those projections.
“The Southeast, already the fastest sprawling region in the U.S., faces unprecedented pressures from explosive population growth and development trends,” Pope said. “Georgia’s coastal marshes and hammocks are very vulnerable in the next 10 to 20 years given the intense population growth expected in the area. If special attention is not given to the Georgia coast, we could lose one of the South’s most precious resources.”
The Georgia coast is home to resources of worldwide ecological importance. Georgia has one-third of the salt marsh on the East Coast and most of the marsh is owned by the public.
Georgia’s coastal area was deemed so important, and the risk to it so great, that SELC developed a special new initiative focused on protecting it, with three lawyers working on this effort.
“We do not want the Georgia coast to end up looking like the overdeveloped Florida coast or Myrtle Beach,” Hunt said. “Georgia still has vast areas of pristine marshland. We want development to occur where it’s appropriate. We know development’s coming, we just want it to go where it should.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a non-profit, donor-supported environmental advocacy organization using the power of the law to protect the environment and special places in the South. Working to defend the public’s interest and never for private gain, SELC provides its legal services without charge to other environmental organizations and partner groups. SELC has a special initiative focused on protecting the Georgia coast with a team of lawyers working on this effort.
About the Southern Environmental Law Center
SELC is a nonprofit donor supported environmental advocacy organization using the power of the law to protect the environment and health in the Southeast. Since 1986, SELC has informed, implemented and enforced environmental law and policy concerning clean air and water, mountain forests, the coast and wetlands, and rural lands and livable communities. Working to defend the public’s interest and never for private gain, SELC provides its legal services without charge to other environmental organizations and partner groups. SELC has approximately 40 lawyers and offices in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia; Chapel Hill and Asheville, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina, Washington, DC; and Atlanta. Visit SELC online at www.SouthernEnvironment.org