St. Simons Island could become Georgia’s next city. It attracts a lot of development. And some residents think only a local city government can make sure developers preserve the island’s character. But as GPB’s Emily Jones reports, not everyone is sold.
When you drive around St. Simon’s Island, it’s easy to see why people love it. Old live oaks twist and spread their limbs over the roads, with tiny cottages tucked between them.
As she drives, Miriam Lancaster points out some of her favorites - including an oceanfront cottage called Sea Breeze, "one of the oldest beach cottages on the island," she says. "Supposedly Margaret Mitchell stayed here when she was writing Gone with the Wind."
But Lancaster also points out some areas she says aren’t so beautiful. "Now this development was not fully wooded before...but it was a lot more heavily wooded than it is now," she says, driving by a cleared plot of land. "We lost about four acres of tree canopy when this development was cleared."
She and other island residents think this kind of development threatens the island’s famed tree canopy and small-town feel. Those concerns prompted Glynn county commissioners to halt development for months last year while they worked on new zoning regulations.
But Lancaster isn’t satisfied - and she’s not alone. She’s part of a group called Citizens for St. Simons and Sea Island. They want to incorporate the islands as a city. "If we have a city council and a mayor who are all elected island residents, they will have island concerns," Lancaster explains. "And we will be able to have those decisions made by island residents."
Advocates are working with state lawmakers to get cityhood legislation passed and on the ballot - but it won’t happen this year. And County Commissioner Dale Provenzano says that’s a good thing. "You’re talking about changing your local government," he says. "And that should not be taken lightly. That is a very serious question, and I think it’s one that the citizens of St. Simons ought to get to vote on."
Provenzano believes voters need more time and more facts. There’s conflicting information on how cityhood might affect taxes. Questions remain over who would pay for what. The county commission last week hired a Georgia Tech think tank to study how a new city would affect the county as a whole.
State Senator William Ligon - an island resident himself - has proposed another alternative: a township. His plan would give the island control over zoning and enforcement - in other words, control over development. But a township wouldn’t have to provide or pay for the same services as a full-fledged city.
"It’s giving the residents of St. Simons another option, and perhaps an option that could take effect a little more quickly than what I believe would be the case for a city," Ligon explains.
The township approach would require a referendum to amend the state constitution. Incorporation advocates say that could take more time. But with no incorporation bill on the docket this year, cityhood can’t happen until 2017.
Either way, the islands’ more than 12,000 residents would make the final decision. So why the rush?
"We can influence those properties that have not yet been approved, but again, this is why this whole thing is so urgent, because as soon as something is approved we lose the ability to impact it in any significant way," says George Ragsdale, president of the group pushing for incorporation.
It’s not clear whether either approach to St. Simons government will make it out of the state legislature, this year or next. But residents say they want the chance to vote on how to preserve the island they call home.