The Sea Island Company called its shot on language essentially exempting the island from the Shore Protection Act under House Bill 445, and, according to state Department of Natural Resources staff, it’s standard operating procedure.

Indeed, the Sea Island carve-out, presently listed in lines 84-89, wasn’t part of the bill as it was envisioned at the beginning of the 2019 session.

Documents obtained by The News include a legislation worksheet and emails detailing that staff within DNR’s Coastal Resources Division didn’t intend on putting forward an SPA revision bill like H.B. 271, legislation that died in the Senate in 2018.

Wes Robinson, DNR public affairs director, said Friday that the department planned more on adjusting to the new gubernatorial administration than pursuing legislation. He said what they were really looking at moving on as an agency was clean-up language to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, which was necessary so DNR could properly administer it.

In a Jan. 27 email, from CRD Director Doug Haymans to CRD coastal hazards specialist Jennifer Kline, about potential questions on the SPA during a Leadership Glynn trip to the Capitol, Haymans said DNR asked for an SPA revision bill to be selected as agency legislation by the Governor’s Office, but it wasn’t, so they weren’t pursuing it.

Defining the language

Once it appeared state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, was going to move forward with a bill, Robinson gave a heads-up to Gov. Brian Kemp’s legislative liaison, Josh Hildebrandt, and on Feb. 5, CRD Assistant Director Karl Burgess sent around a draft bill Hogan put together. References are made in subsequent email exchanges about a newer version of the bill, but in effect it would be the same as H.B. 271.

Robinson said Friday he wasn’t sure who first raised the the idea about including the groin language, meant only to pertain to the Sea Island spit.

“I don’t know who asked for feedback, but basically, knowing that we’d be the one administering this law, we just want to make sure that we could administer whatever language was put into the legislation,” Robinson said.

Either way, on Feb. 18, Sea Island general counsel Bill McHugh sent an email to Jerry Keen, the former House majority leader from St. Simons Island who currently heads one of the top lobbying firms in Atlanta, Joe Tanner and Associates.

In that email was a link to the part of the Georgia code that lists the areas of operation of the Shore Protection Act. Presently, there are three paragraphs. The email included draft language for a fourth.

It read, “(4) The area of operation of this part shall not include any area landward of the most seaward platted lot line or parcel line (as of the effective date of this Act) on the updrift side of a groin permitted under the Shore Protection Act within a distance from the groin of 5000 feet or 10 times the length of the groin whichever is less.”

Keen forwarded the email to Robinson the next morning at 10:07 a.m. Thirteen minutes later, Robinson emailed Burgess and Haymans the same carve-out language and asked whether there were any policy concerns with adding it to the bill. At one point, Haymans asked Burgess and Jill Andrews, chief of the CRD Coastal Management Section, what happens if the phrase “and is not part of the sand-sharing system” was added to the paragraph.

That afternoon, Andrews replied back to Robinson, Haymans and Burgess with amended language. It read, “4) the area of operation of this part shall not include any area landward of the most seaward platted lot line, if roadways, bridges or water and sewer lines have been extended to such a lot prior to July 1, 2019, on the updrift side of a groin permitted under the Shore Protection Act within a distance from the groin of 5000 ft or 10 times the length of the groin, whichever is less.”

The emails appear to show that during the same afternoon, McHugh sent Keen a PDF with edits on a draft bill, and Keen re-sent that PDF to Robinson, saying, “Please review as soon as you can. We need to drop ASAP.” Around an hour later, Robinson replied back to Keen with the edited carve-out language from CRD and a further edited draft bill attached.

Emails between Robinson and Keen later that day, and into the next day, indicate McHugh was crafting a new draft bill. Keen wrote he would have it to DNR and Hogan as soon as possible. The bill went to DNR at 8:40 a.m., Feb. 20, with Keen saying he was sending it to Hogan for him to drop, and that further changes could be made in committee if necessary.

Haymans, in an email that afternoon to Robinson, Andrews, Burgess and Coast and Ocean Management Program Manager Josh Noble, said of the carve-out, “As to the requested amendment to 12-5-233, we believe we understand the intent of this addition and are willing to work with it.”

On Feb. 21, Robinson sent the bill, as an attachment, to Leah Dixon of the Georgia Conservancy.

Legislation on the move

According to the General Assembly website, Hogan put H.B. 445 in the House hopper on Feb. 22. It received a hearing and a vote Feb. 28 in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

In the days before the hearing, McHugh wrote up a summary of the bill for use in advocating for it.

On the groin specification, he wrote, “DNR’s CRD oversees all permitted groins and, in the event the sand volume in the area stabilized by the groin becomes too low the agency can require either nourishment or a groin modification that would then reduce or eliminate the application of this section….

“Excluding backyards in the shadow of the groin allows DNR to continue to manage the groin permitted areas without exhausting resources permitting backyard projects and defending permits over properties that should be outside of jurisdiction.”

Scott Steilen, Sea Island Company president and CEO, suggested in a reply that the summary should be dumbed down for a wider audience. McHugh sent a revised version, which Keen subsequently forwarded on to Robinson.

Hogan, in the committee hearing, admitted the carve-out language was about Sea Island and defended its inclusion in the bill.

“And prior to the last groin going in, Sea Island’s renourishment wound up on St. Simons, and we (on St. Simons) were very thankful for that because we didn’t have to do the renourishment at a tremendous cost,” Hogan said. “Sea Island paid that cost, and we benefitted on St. Simons from the renourishment of Sea Island.”

In less than a week, the House approved H.B. 445 and sent it to the Senate, but that day CRD staff were already working on amended language to further focus the carve-out on Sea Island. What was suggested — and later added in Senate committee — was phrasing to make the provision only apply to privately financed operations.

The way things work

Burgess analogized the specificity to changes made to the Shore Protection Act’s regulatory sibling, the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act. There’s a section of the CMPA now regarding reclamation of manmade boat slips, which Burgess stated was specific to Hutchinson Island. Hutchinson Island, in the Savannah River, is the location of the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center, a Westin resort, a golf course, residential development and other attractions.

Friday, Robinson said this sort of process is how things go regarding certain bills.

“It’s not our place to necessarily say if it’s good, bad or indifferent,” Robinson said. “It’s a matter of if we can administer it or not, and that’s one of those ones that we would be able to. But, when it’s not an agency bill, they could put whatever (in the legislation).”

Megan Desrosiers, CEO of One Hundred Miles, said they heard about the cooperation between Sea Island and DNR in crafting H.B. 445.

“Unfortunately, the department and Sea Island have a history of working together on this issue,” Desrosiers said. “As a result, the past few years’ bills have catered to private developers rather than protecting public resources, like the sand-sharing system. We all agree that the Shore Protection Act needs amending, but we oppose the bill every year because it loosens the acts provisions, rather than strengthens them.”

H.B. 445 awaits action in the Senate Rules Committee before it can be voted on by the full Senate.

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