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Local entrepreneur establishes Ga. Tech scholarship fund for county grads
 lhobbs  / 

The binary code of computer language that has been the driving force behind most emerging technology in the 21st century consists of a combination of 1s and 0s.

Bob Torras may be an old school engineer, but he speaks the language. The St. Simons Island resident made a powerful statement Wednesday on behalf of the advancement of such technology, using a single 1 and six 0s. These were the essential features on the $1 million check he presented to his alma mater, Georgia Tech.

The money establishes a scholarship fund at Georgia Tech for deserving local high school graduates who otherwise would not be able to attend the highly-respected engineering and technology school. The check was presented during an informal luncheon at the Lodge at Sea Island on St. Simons Island.

Torras, 85, recently retired as head of a vast family operation that includes the Brunswick Landing Marina, the Kut Kwick commercial mower manufacturer in Brunswick, Torco Inc. manufacturer in Kennesaw and the West Point Plantation community on St. Simons Island. Torras said he hopes the scholarship will inspire bright technologically-minded men and women here in Glynn County to aspire to their dreams, regardless of financial circumstances.

“Technology is the future for all young people if they want to emerge from the crowd,” said Torras, the son of the man who built the original F.J. Torras Causeway that connects St. Simons Island to the mainland. “With this scholarship, they will have the opportunity to go to one of the best technological schools in the country. I think if they start at a very young age, knowing that they have that opportunity, then perhaps their parents will help encourage them to strive for that goal, knowing these scholarships are available.”

The Robert M. Torras Sr. Scholarship Endowment Fund of the Georgia Tech Foundation will present its first scholarship to a graduate of a Glynn County high school next year. The foundation will add a second recipient in 2021 and add an additional student over the subsequent two years, until four local scholarships are granted annually, according to the terms of the endowment.

The Torras scholarships will provide students with the financial circumstances they lack to apply the academic merits they possess, realizing their dreams in the classrooms at Georgia Tech. The scholarships would potentially cover the entire costs of acquiring a four-year bachelor’s degree. In an earlier conversation with The News, Torras referred to deserving students of Brunswick High and Glynn Academy as the ideal recipients, but the scholarships are eligible also for private school graduates in Glynn County who qualify academically and demonstrate a financial need.

“This is just a game-changer for coastal Georgia,” said John B. Byrne Jr., Director of Development at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. “What we see often is a lot of students around the state have an ability to get into Georgia Tech but are limited by the family’s resources. This is the type of scholarship that changes the game for a lot of people. It really is just extraordinarily generous.”

With a nationwide emphasis on encouraging youngsters to excel in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum, scholarships such as this provide further incentive to pursue these fields, said Maryam Alavi, Dean and Professor of Information Systems at tech’s Scheller College.

“Technology is playing a major role in the way we create value, in the way we operate businesses,” she said. “It is really important that the future business movers, in addition to leadership and business acumen, are also tech savvy. This is a wonderful way to be able to afford that opportunity without letting the ability to pay get in the way.”

Himself a graduate of Glynn Academy, Torras went on to earn an engineering degree from Georgia Tech in 1955. After a stint as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Torras returned to Georgia Tech to pursue his master’s degree. He then bought a struggling manufacturing company in Kennesaw, building up Torco Inc. into Georgia’s leading producer of precision machine parts. Still later, he returned home to operate Kut Kwick and develop the Brunswick Landing Marina into the state’s largest saltwater marina.

Torras hopes a future recipient of his scholarship would likewise return to this community and invest his or her talents locally.

“I hope that it will get these young people to use all of their ability to its utmost potential,” he said. “I think it is of tremendous importance to this community to give this opportunity to young people who are not affluent, but who have the skills and the vision we need for the future.”

Bobby Haven/The Brunswick News 

maritime day

Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church Father Chris Hassel blesses a wreath held by Jack and JeanneEarle McConnell before they toss it off the St. Simons Pier in remembrance of merchant mariners during the annual Golden Isles Maritime Day ceremony on Wednesday. National Maritime Day is a United States holiday created in 1933 to recognize the maritime industry. It is observed on May 22, the date in 1819 that the American steamship Savannah set sail from Savannah on the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam power.

Seismic testing plaintiffs respond to federal agencies
 wwolfe  / 

Following South Carolina’s lead, the other plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to stop seismic airgun testing off the Atlantic Coast filed their responses, over the past several days, to a status report by the federal defendants in federal court in Charleston, S.C. The responses generally agree that the Interior secretary and the acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management showed their cards by stating application processing continues and essentially authorizations could go out at any time.

“First, the status report and accompanying declaration confirm that seismic testing poses an imminent threat of irreparable harm to the environment and plaintiffs’ members,” wrote Catherine Wannamaker of the Southern Environmental Law Center, joined by attorneys from the SELC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Jenner & Block, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

She continues, “Federal defendants have already issued the five incidental harassment authorizations at issue here, and permit applications for all five seismic surveys are still pending before BOEM. … Federal defendants’ status report disclaims any connection between recent delays related to BOEM’s leasing plans and the agency’s consideration of these permit applications.”

Georgia’s One Hundred Miles is one of the conservation groups among the plaintiffs, as is the NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the N.C. Coastal Federation, Oceana, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.

The status report came after statements by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to the Wall Street Journal that the Trump administration’s plans for offshore drilling — in nearly every Outer Continental Shelf area off U.S. coastlines — were on hold.

That was because a federal judge in Alaska ruled the documents that the administration used to justify its plans were illegal in repealing actions taken by the Obama administration to make these areas off-limits for drilling and associated activities.

According to the response by the group of nine state plaintiffs, “The federal defendants state that the Department of the Interior ‘is evaluating what, if any, effect’ the decision in League of Conservation Voters v. Trump ‘may have on planning for OCS lease sales in the National OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program.’ … They further state that ‘(t)he Department of Interior is reviewing all its options,’ without providing any indication of how long that review will take. …

“To the extent that the department’s review and evaluation result in a delay in the issuance of a Proposed Program for 2019-2024, as recent media reports have indicated, that delay undercuts any argument that it is urgent to conduct seismic testing now, and underscores that an injunction would serve the public interest….”

The nine states include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia. South Carolina is a party to the suit independently of the other states. The 16 South Carolina municipalities that are parties to the suit, plus the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, also filed a response, stating, “Given the federal defendants have asserted BOEM applications will continue to be reviewed despite the ruling in League of Conservation Voters et. al. v. Trump et. al., … it is all the more crucial this court grant the pending motions for preliminary injunction.”

Grand jury action delayed in McIntosh Clerk of Court case

Grand jury action on allegations that suspended McIntosh County Clerk of Court Rebecca McFerrin violated her oath of office has been delayed pending resolution of a petition to remove her from office, District Attorney Tom Durden said.

“We are working toward a resolution,’’ Durden said Wednesday, the day the grand jury met and handed up a number of criminal indictments.

For now, however, a trial on McFerrin’s removal remains on the calendar for July 11 in McIntosh County Superior Court, Durden said. Senior Judge Michael L. Karpf from Savannah has been appointed to conduct the trial because all the judges in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit have voluntarily recused themselves.

Should that trial go on as planned, a jury will hear the findings of a investigative panel that issued a report saying it found evidence that McFerrin had failed to enter into the court database the arrest records of people being held in jail. As a result, those defendants remained confined without the benefit of timely hearings to set bail for their release, said the panel composed of an assistant state attorney general and two Superior Court clerks.

McFerrin is also accused of instructing a deputy clerk to deliberately delay the processing of one female defendant’s records because McFerrin was angry over phone calls from the woman’s sister. The woman, who was jailed on traffic and drug charges, had recently undergone surgery and needed release for medical care.

In a petition for McFerrin’s removal that Durden filed April 18, Durden cited her action on her husband’s speeding ticket as indictable as a felony violation of her oath. A Georgia State Patrol trooper had cited James Glenn McFerrin for driving 101 mph. After the case was continued twice in State Court, it disappeared from the calendar altogether because McFerrin had deleted it from the court database, the panel said in its report.

Although his office didn’t present a proposed indictment on that alleged violation Wednesday, it doesn’t mean it won’t be brought forth later, Durden said.

“That’s not off the table altogether,’’ he said.

Durden said his office is negotiating with McFerrin and her lawyer.

McFerrin’s suspension arose after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed the panel to investigate a complaint from Chief Superior Court Judge Robert Russell and State Court Judge C. Jean Bolin that other court officials joined.

In a letter, Russell and Bolin laid out a couple of complaints, but the panel listed others in a report at the conclusion of its 30-day investigation. The panel also asserted that McFerrin had, without authority, excused so many jurors that trials could not be held, appeared unconcerned about a chaotic jury selection process, did not understand child support procedures and had signed off on court filings that required judges’ approval. Records of some hearings and other court proceedings appeared to have been lost altogether, the panel said.

In its report, the panel also said that the 30-day window to investigate McFerrin’s office was not sufficient.

Jekyll lighting changes delayed, for now
 wwolfe  / 

A possibly contentious consideration of a new lighting ordinance on Jekyll Island didn’t occur at the Jekyll Island Authority board meeting Tuesday, and instead was postponed at least partially because of objections raised by the state Department of Natural Resources.

JIA Director of Conservation Ben Carswell said DNR Wildlife Resources Division Director Rusty Garrison sent him a memo last week expressing reservations about aspects of changes to the 10-year-old ordinance, changes that the board heard at its last meeting in March.

Carswell said that the JIA staff, along with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, drafted those changes to better reflect model standards from Florida and improve consistent management and enforcement of the ordinance.

“We take this input from DNR very seriously,” Carswell said. “Georgia DNR is our most important and closest partner in conservation on Jekyll Island. We wholeheartedly support the agency’s good work and frequently tap the expertise of the wildlife conservation staff in the Brunswick office.

“That’s why I’m coming to you with the recommendation on this particular issue that the beach lighting ordinance is absolutely important for conservation of sea turtles on Jekyll, and can also be very challenging to enforce and comply with. That’s OK — we are not in any way trying to weaken the ordinance, but for it to continue to be successful with new beachfront redevelopment projects in the pipeline, we must make sure that it can be applied consistently and will stand up to any challenge.”

Carswell said between Tuesday’s meeting and the next board meeting June 18, staff will convene a small working group of people from DNR and “key stakeholder representatives” to better inform DNR and make further adjustments to the ordinance.

The board also took a look at two more ordinance modifications that would specify where visitors can and cannot park in the early morning hours, and where and when people can sleep on the island.

As the overnight parking ordinance presently stands, no one is allowed to park a motor vehicle, trailer or camper on public areas of the island overnight. The ordinance would change this prohibition to specifically between 2-5 a.m.

The proposed sleeping ordinance would be entirely new. It states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to camp or sleep on the streets, beaches, parks, parking lots or other public areas, whether in automobiles, trucks, campers, recreational vehicles or other vehicle, or in equipment designed and intended for the purpose of camping.

“Such activity may be permitted in public areas specifically set aside and designated for camping by the authority.”

In a report to the board, Carswell delivered news of expansion of Wilson’s plover nesting behavior. In an attempt to conserve the shorebirds, staff rope off areas of Jekyll beaches to help the plovers nest relatively undisturbed compared to traffic on other areas of the beach.

So far this year, Wilson’s plovers showed they’re building on their nesting area expansion from last year, with six nests found outside the roped-off area by May 15. By that time, there were 19 total nests observed, three of which hatched, with JIA conservation staff banding six chicks.

Work is also ongoing to determine the detection probabilities of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. The study involves plots of 0.25 km square around “radio telemetered individuals” and surveying those plots to find the known snake again, along with others. Data from the project is to better-establish population estimates for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake around different island habitats, which hadn’t been done previously.

Lizzie King, a UGA assistant professor of ecosystem ecology and management, discussed aspects of an ongoing effort to study environmental stressors on Jekyll’s live oaks, a goal of which is to figure out methods to preserve the canopy.

Carswell said, in introducing the project, “The multiple stressors piece of that is important, it’s what makes our study unique and smart. There is no shortage of information out there in the scientific and management literature describing how high densities of deer, such as we have on Jekyll Island, can have negative effects on native plant diversity and forest regeneration. On a broad scale, there’s really no doubt about that.

“But, we didn’t bring Lizzie on board to back us up by re-answering a simple and kind of tired question we already knew the answer to. The question that we’ve asked her to investigate is more interesting, more novel and potentially more useful. That question is, what are the most important things shaping the diversity and dynamics of the native plant community on Jekyll, and where do deer impacts stand relative to those other forces?”

In her third annual report to the board, King wrote, “Sea level rise, climate change, human impacts on surface and groundwater hydrology, fire suppression, invasive species, land development and altered wildlife abundances all have the potential to affect the health and long-term resilience of these (maritime live oak) forests.

“We know surprisingly little about the individual or combined influence of these factors on the past, present and future trajectories of forest change in response to environmental stressors.”

To at least keep the population level, live oaks need to successfully produce at least one mature offspring to replace itself. However, these seedlings and saplings appear to deer and wild hogs as tasty snacks. The large deer population on Jekyll is of particular concern, as are laurel oaks, which compete for area and resources with live oaks.

During a workshop on the topic by experts in 2018, the participants saw “essentially no live oak seedlings or saplings on St. Catherines, Sapelo and Little St. Simons islands, and very few on Ossabaw and Jekyll. These trends were a serious concern shared by all.”

But because there isn’t a great deal of scholarship on the subject, it’s unknown whether this lack of juvenile trees is unusual for these kinds of forests.

According to the report, “Building a more nuanced, casual understanding of forest trends, limits to regeneration, and fire and successional dynamics is a long-term, but challenging, goal.”

The project’s funded by UGA, a state Department of Natural Resources/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association coastal incentive grant and a grant from the JIA.

The board also approved a new plan and design for The Moorings at Jekyll Island, which reduces the developed area by 1 acre than the previously considered plans.

Receiving their grand openings Tuesday were Overview Beach Park and the Jekyll Island Solar Facility. The new-and-improved park includes 173 parking spots — including 16 handicapped-designated and seven for electric vehicles — a bathhouse with shower facilities, picnic areas and a balcony overlook, which are ADA-accessible.

The solar farm is the largest on state-owned land in Georgia and covers a spot on top of a decommissioned landfill. It’s operated by Cherry Street Energy, and electricity generated on site, enough to power 113 homes, goes back into the Georgia Power grid.

Looking ahead, the Glynn County Board of Commissioners contacted JIA about a possible 2020 special local option sales tax program, and JIA staff provided a few recommendations, which the board approved. Those include $750,000 for Driftwood Beach parking and access improvements, $1 million for Clam Creek Fishing Pier access and safety improvements and $1 million for bicycle path paving, for a total of $2.75 million.