The quandary of what constitutes a dune sent a Shore Protection Act reform bill to a screeching stop in the General Assembly during the 2017 session. As was mentioned at the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce Grits & Issues event Friday, Hurricane Irma took most of the dunes, anyway.
“I’m through with House Bill 271,” said state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island. “That bill jumped on me right out of the (House) Natural Resources Committee, and we discussed it. (Then-director) Spud (Woodward) from down here at (the) Coastal (Resources Division) and the rest of the (CRD staff) came up and did testimony after testimony before our committee.
“I thought it was a good bill when it got started out. The problem we ran into was trying to identify what some of the starting points … like the Johnson rocks … and sand dunes, trying to identify what a sand dune is. And when Irma got through with us, I don’t know if we had a sand dune left out there.”
The catalyzing issue for H.B. 271’s creation was the belief the SPA — nearly 40 years old — led to jurisdictional boundaries that amounted to a sawtooth pattern along the coast, neither effectively serving to protect the natural sand-sharing system nor properly address activity by property owners.
The idea was to place a jurisdictional line 25 feet inland from the most landward wall, series of rocks, dunes or the high-water mark. Many environmental advocates wanted a line 50-150 feet back, but the 25-foot specification went into the bill. To build or to modify property within that 25-foot zone, you would have to submit an application and go before the Shore Protection Committee.
When state Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, pulled the bill from consideration in March, people including One Hundred Miles executive director Megan Desrosiers said the intervening months could provide the opportunity to properly rework the bill and produce legislation that could both pass the General Assembly and do the job intended. But there will not be movement on the bill in the coming term that begins in January.
Hogan said as he understood it, the bill was dead in the Senate and he would not support it, regardless.
“It is not going to be moving, according to the (Senate Natural Resources Committee) chairman,” state Sen. William Ligon, R-St. Simons Island, said. “There’s a lack of agreement — no one’s happy with it, so I think it’s going back to the drawing board. You may see a study committee that comes out of the Senate — probably have a joint committee with the House — to look at that issue and see what can be done and maybe we can arrive at a consensus on some of it.”
One bill that will be moving is the massive state adoption overhaul that also came to a sudden stop earlier this year. Ligon, in the Senate Judiciary Committee and close to the end of session, placed a provision in the bill that, in practice, would allow adoption agencies to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
That amendment ended up causing some controversy within the committee and later the entire General Assembly, as a bipartisan group of state representatives rose to speak in the House against the amendment and the perception it threatened to derail around two years of hard work to completely restructure the adoption process to better serve children and families.
Those issues appear to have been worked out. As state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, spoke about the bill, Ligon’s body language remained placid.
“The adoption bill will come back this year — that’s H.B. 159 — and I understand that the objections that were raised in the Senate when that bill moved over have been resolved,” Jones said. “I don’t have personal, absolute knowledge of that, but I understand (those) issues have been resolved, so we’re moving ahead with the adoption bill.”
Jones also noted the Army Corps of Engineers is working on a dredging project that would move the spoil 8 miles offshore. He said he’s working on legislation that would put the sand back closer to land to bolster the sand-sharing system.
Meanwhile, above all else, Hogan reminded the crowd at the chamber event that the state legislature’s top job is to agree to and pass a budget.
“The budget is the only thing we have to do in the General Assembly — to pass a budget,” Hogan said. “The rest of the time we’re just diddling around.”
The General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 8 at 10 a.m.