A family’s plan to build a residential compound on private land within Cumberland Island National Seashore is moving forward.
Acting on a recommendation from staff, the five-member Camden County Planning Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved a hardship variance to allow Lumar LLC to divide its land, which sits on a dirt road about a quarter mile from the park’s Sea Camp, into 10 lots. Camden ordinarily prohibits the subdivision of land not fronted by a paved road.
Building a new compound on the 88-acre tract will require a zoning change.
“My clients do not intend to build a hotel or resort on their property,” said attorney Stephen Kinney. “They desire to build residences for members of their family.”
Lumar LLC owns the property, which it bought in 1998 for $3.5 million. It’s now assessed at about $169,000 and yearly property taxes amount to about $2,000, the county’s records indicate. At the time of its purchase, the family owners indicated through their attorney they did not wish to be identified, but the variance application was signed by Glenn Warren, a descendant of Coca-Cola founder Asa G. Candler.
The planning and development staff noted in considering the variance that the location on a barrier island is an “exceptional circumstance.”
“Given the isolated nature of the property, the limited number of adjacent property owners and the fact that the permitted uses on the property will not change (zoning will remain as conservation) the variance requested should not cause a substantial detriment,” staff wrote.
More than 700 public commenters disagreed, writing to Director of Planning and Development Eric Landon from all over the state and country begging the commission to deny the variance. Many wrote of their visits to the island and their desire to see its wild state protected. Many feared, correctly it turns out, that the subdivision was a prelude to further zoning requests.
“Clearly, the only purpose of subdividing such property is to then proceed with a rezoning that, if granted, would allow construction of buildings on each of the subdivided lots — whether such rezoning occurred for all lots at once, or sequentially over a series of individual applications, wrote Dave Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast. “Therefore, the variance request cannot be responsibly considered without contemplating its consequences.”
Other environmental groups including One Hundred Miles and the Georgia Conservancy were also among those opposed. The Nature Conservancy, which itself owns land on Cumberland, stressed the ecological significance of Cumberland, Georgia’s largest barrier island, calling it “globally significant.”
Writing on behalf of the Southern Environmental Law Center, attorneys Bill Sapp and Helen Barnes argued that not only did Lumar fail to meet any of the five conditions needed for a hardship variance, the company didn’t even try to make a case for the variance.
“Where an applicant such as Lumar does not make a sufficient showing, the zoning board — or in this case the Planning Commission — may not grant the hardship variance sought,” they wrote, citing case law to back up the point.
Lumar should also have shown that the variance would not cause “substantial detriment to the public good.”
“If this subdivision were allowed, structures could be built within full view of the marsh, the beach, the main road, and the parallel trail,” the SELC attorneys wrote. “As described above, this is the first parcel of land north of Sea Camp. It serves as the welcome mat to visitors from around the world intent on experiencing the wilds of Cumberland Island. This variance therefore would lead to a substantial detriment to the public good.”
The public hearing in St. Mary’s Wednesday drew more than 50 people. Public comment against the variance was limited to 15 minutes, as were the comments from the applicant, who was also afforded a two-minute rebuttal. Commission members voted with little discussion.
Candler descendants were among those who negotiated with the National Park Service to create Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972. The Park Service bought most of the island and struck deals that allowed residents and in many cases their descendants to have “retained property rights” — to continue to use existing homes for a set period of time.
Cumberland Island National Seashore Superintendent Gary Ingram weighed in on the issue both at the hearing and in written comments, noting the tract’s proximity to the primary visitor locations.
“Development adjacent to those sites could have an adverse impact on visitors’ experience and enjoyment of the island,” he wrote.
About 1,000 acres of Cumberland Island are privately held without restrictions, like the Lumar property. Despite their proximity to publicly owned National Park Service land those parcels can be developed, limited only by local zoning regulations. The Lumar tract is zoned “Conservation Preservation,” which allows limited uses by right, including museums and marinas, and a few additional special uses including resort hotels.
A public comment from Thornton Morris, writing on behalf of the Cumberland Island Conservancy, lays out the Lumar owners’ ultimate goal. Three members of the Conservancy’s board have an interest in the variance application, Morris wrote.
“The variance before you is supported by the Conservancy on the basis of our desire to cause future building on private property to occur in the southern part of Cumberland rather than in the wilderness areas of the island,” Morris wrote. “Our desire is to keep the population pressure off the wilderness designated northern part of the island, and instead, have any future housing located in the southern and more populated portion of Cumberland. The conservancy feels that so long as the island has a wilderness designation on it, construction should occur outside the wilderness designated areas.”
This comment has puzzled some conservationists who point out that construction is already prohibited in the nearly 10,000 acres of Cumberland designated as wilderness.
The public has 30 days to appeal the decision on the variance to the Camden County Commission. Sapp said the Southern Environmental Law Center had not made a decision to do so.
“We’re looking at all our options at this point,” he said. They’re also looking at the larger picture.
“Ultimately we want to see a solution to this issue that preserves the natural and historic character of the iconic Cumberland Island yet at the same time respects the property rights of those who own private property on the island.”