This legislative session’s attempt at reforming the Shore Protection Act contains within it a paragraph solely devoted to preserving within state law the viability of development on the Sea Island spit.

State Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, raised the issue Thursday during a hearing on House Bill 445 in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. She noted that state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, told her earlier during this bill’s journey that there’s not another place in the state to where it would pertain.

As written in the bill, the section states, “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 5,000 feet or ten times the length of the groin, whichever is less.”

Hogan confirmed what he said to Drenner before regarding that part of the bill, which is in lines 84-88.

“Those are the only groins I know of, and groins have been permitted to try to protect the sand that’s been renourishing those beaches,” said Hogan, who is the bill’s lead sponsor. “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 — Sea Island paid that cost, and we benefitted on St. Simons from the renourishment of Sea Island.”

The other significant changes within the bill would remove a lot of the permitting procedure within the law as it pertains to “minor activity” within the SPA’s jurisdictional area. Often — particularly with a number of properties on St. Simons Island, backyard improvements have to submit to the months-long process.

If H.B. 445 passes the General Assembly in its current form, the state Department of Natural Resources commissioner would be able to approve such an application after a minimum of 15 days. However, there are allowances within the bill for the commissioner to refer the project to the full Shore Protection Committee, and for members of the Shore Protection Committee to ask that the project get the full consideration.

Doug Haymans, director of DNR’s Coastal Resources Division, said, “The best example that I’ll give you of why we want to do this is, there’s an individual who came to us who wanted to put a planter around an oak tree and install landscaping — that’s was it. And that had to go through a full-blown permit application and several months to get approval to do that in their own backyard.

“And that’s an example of things that come before the committee on a regular basis. We just feel like those types of activities can be considered by the commissioner, and if he then decides it needs to go further to the committee, it can go there, as well.”

As stated in the bill, minor activity encompasses “an activity such as the construction of installation of decks, patios or porches or the alteration of native landscaping, so long as such construction, installation or alteration, when combined with other structures on the subject parcel or portion thereof, does not impact more than a total of one-third of the subject parcel or portion thereof that is subject to the jurisdiction of this part; or the construction or installation of elevated crosswalks providing access across sand dunes and shoreline stabilization activities.”

The legislation also removed the possibility for localities to develop their own permitting bodies, but Haymans said no locality included in the SPA jurisdiction has done that in the 40 years of the law’s existence, so it made sense to provide in the law in each instance that the Shore Protection Committee handles those issues.

State Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, said that regardless of what happened before, with issues of climate change particularly affecting coastal communities, that provision should be left in the law.

She later voted against the bill’s passage with the hopes of talking further about local permitting authorities.

H.B. 445 did pass out of committee, albeit with some no votes, and moves on to the House Rules Committee.

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