“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.”-Wallace Stegner
Cumberland Island National Seashore and United Nations Biosphere Reserve is the largest of the southern United States’ sea islands. It is a paradise of eco-diversity and incomparable beauty. Visitors can only access the island by a private boat or the ferry from St. Marys, Georgia, and when they arrive, they find that they have been transported to a realm that is beyond all expectations.
Cumberland is a perfect marriage of the physical and the spiritual: there is transcendent natural majesty there that reaches deep into our souls, releasing and transforming us in unexpected ways. When you run your fingers lightly over the masterpiece of a live oak, emerge from a twilight tunnel of ancient green into a sun-dazzled world of sugar-sand dunes, and stand alone on a beach that vanishes into the curvature of the earth…you are profoundly changed. Suddenly you hear your own voice on the wind, taste the sea salt on your skin, walk with a gentler but firmer step, and know what it is to be Eternal.
Yesteryear: In 1954, several members of the Carnegie family (long-time Island residents) invited the National Park Service to the Island to assess its suitability as a national park. On October 23, 1972, Congress established the Cumberland Island National Seashore and began purchasing thousands of acres of land on the island. Ten years later, Congress designated the northern half of the island, about 9,000 acres, as the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area. Private acreage remains on the island however—some as life estates that will revert to the National Park Service and about 1,000 acres that are held as fee simple inholdings.
All was well…until recently.
On December 7, 2016, the Camden County, Ga, Planning Commission met to discuss a Hardship Variance that was filed by Lumar LLC (a consortium of some Island family landowners) regarding 87.51 acres on Cumberland Island. Lumar sought to create a 10-lot subdivision in the heart of the Island – on land that is zoned “conservation preservation” and is less than a quarter-mile from the Sea Camp ferry dock. In that paved roads are not allowed on the Island, they required a variance to the County code that requires a paved road for any subdivision.
Despite the fact that the applicants failed to meet the five hardship variance requirements, their request was granted.
Two separate parties responded by filing appeals: William R. Bruce, St. Marys, Ga, resident (and other signing individuals); and the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association and the St. Marys EarthKeepers. Online petitions protesting the subdivision of the 87+ acres quickly garnered over 20,000 signatures and more than 1,000 comments were emailed to the County Commissioners.
The appeal was scheduled and then postponed until April 4. Camden County then contacted the parties involved in the appeals and requested a further postponement. Now we know why.
From that initial hardship variance, this has mutated into a monster. Now, the entirety of Cumberland Island itself is at stake as the Camden County Commissioners forge ahead with their plan to rezone all 1,000 acres of privately-owned inholdings, thus exposing the Island to a devastating level of development. If, for example, they decide to rezone for 1 housing unit per every 5 or 10 acres (as seems likely) the Island could well be the site of the equivalent of a very exclusive gated subdivision.
This is all a clear and egregious violation of the Cumberland Island National Seashore enabling legislation: “The seashore shall be permanently preserved 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.”
To those who have experienced the rare wonders of Cumberland, imagine disembarking from the ferry only to be greeted by the roar of chainsaws and bulldozers and the death-groans of live oaks. To those who have yet to find their way to this wonderland of natural beauty, hurry…it is now on the endangered list and the clock is ticking.
We cannot stand idly by as the knife of tax-greed is plunged through the heart of Cumberland Island National Seashore. This is a “last unicorn” situation and we need your help. I urge all citizens, businesses, and organizations to make their voices heard by emailing the Camden County Georgia Commissioners and speaking out at their meetings. Share information via social media, and watch for upcoming activities, action alerts, and opportunities to participate.