St. Marys, Georgia: A peaceful little coastal town of unsurpassed beauty. It serves as the gateway to Cumberland Island National Seashore, a mecca for tourists who want to experience true Southern charm, and a dream-realized for those seeking a natural environment beyond compare.
Enter developer Christopher T. Ragucci and his Knights of the Green Shield/Worldwide Group. (Cue “Razzle Dazzle” from “All That Jazz.”) They quickly changed the company name to “The Port of St. Marys, LLC” and set about trying to convince the townsfolk and elected officials that turning St. Marys into an industrial barge port would be a blessing and boon to all.
“The Port of St. Marys, LLC, has submitted a Rezone application with the City of St. Marys for the 722 acre tract of land formerly home to the Durango Paper Mill. The Rezone application requests a change from its current classification of PD (Planned Development Mixed Use) to a PD (Planned Development Industrial) district under Section 110-68 of the City of St. Marys Zoning Ordinance.
The application states that, “the intent of the Port of St. Marys Industrial & Logistics Center Planned Development District (Port of St. Marys) is to create a rail served industrial and maritime logistics facility on the former Gillman/Durango Paper Mill site. The plans include a barge dock and ship berths, cargo handling and rail intermodal facilities, as well as, shore based infrastructure. Initial planning indicates approximately 3,000 linear feet of barge & vessel berthing is attainable on the North River. The marine facilities will enable industrial operations to access the North River, St. Marys River, Intracoastal Waterway, and the Atlantic Ocean and serve as a key component to the vision and success of the project.”
Hmmm. And this is to be located beside and within the downtown residential area, a stone’s throw from the St. Marys Elementary School, and on the doorstep of the Historic District. (The property in question is also the site of Georgia’s second-largest Wood Stork Rookery – an endangered species.) Citizens immediately began pounding at their keyboards in search of information. Who, exactly, is this developer? What is his background and success rate? The former question turned up a wealth of alarming Mario Puzo-esque media articles. Attempts to answer the latter yielded no information.
Meanwhile, in June 2014, The Port of Fernandina, FL, (a mere eight miles away as the crow flies) unveiled their Master Plan and, lo and behold, there was a rather shocking image of “The Port of St. Marys Potential LNG Facility” (LNG = liquefied natural gas). Ah…Kinder Morgan, the owners and operators of the Port of Fernandina, shakes its grisly saber again.
As you can imagine, feelings are running high in St. Marys as City Council wrestles with whether or not to rezone the property to allow for the creation of an industrial barge port. Those in favor say “It will bring many jobs!” (It should be noted that the Port of Fernandina, a well-established, deep-water, Kinder Morgan-owned port, employs 45 people.) Those opposed to the project claim that it flies in the face of our Comprehensive Master Plan (which is true) and that it will negatively impact our economy, property values, environment, and quality of life. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am strongly opposed to the proposal.)
Will this small jewel of the Georgia coast be sacrificed upon the altar of commerce and industry? Will the legendary “peace of St. Marys” be shattered by legions of heavily-laden trucks, trains, and barges? We shall see.