Press Release | February 25, 2014

Court Upholds Coastal Marsh Protections, Denies Permit for Private Marina on Wilmington Island

Atlanta, GA – A state court on Friday upheld Georgia’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee’s denial of a permit for a private marina proposed to be built in state marshlands on Wilmington Island, east of Savannah, Georgia. The court ruled that the permit applicant, Bull River Bluff Properties, LLC, had not demonstrated that its asserted need for a marina could not be satisfied by existing facilities in the area, including a marina located next door.

The proposed marina would have included a walkway extending over three football fields long through the pristine marshlands along the Bull River in east Chatham County, an area with one of the coast’s highest concentration of marinas and docks. These individual structures may potentially have a larger, cumulative negative impact caused by the shading of marsh grass and accumulation of floating mats of dead marsh grass known as “marsh wrack.” Both shading and marsh wrack can harm marsh vegetation productivity by covering marsh that usually receives sunlight.

The Southern Environmental Law Center intervened in the proceedings on behalf of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, and Savannah Riverkeeper to help defend the Committee’s decision. The legal decision is the second ruling on Bull River Bluff Properties, LLC’s application to construct a marina to serve its existing Bull River Bluff condominium development.

“This ruling is a win for the Georgia Coast and all who enjoy one of the country’s special natural places,” said Nate Hunt, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.  “The Court makes clear that to obtain a permit to construct a marina in public marshlands, an applicant must show that its need for a marina cannot be satisfied by existing public facilities. The use of existing facilities makes sense, because it ensures marina services are provided for the public and ensures the pristine marsh is not unnecessarily impacted.”

The coastal groups previously challenged the Committee’s decision to issue a permit for the development despite recognizing that the applicant’s failure to demonstrate a need for the marina is a violation of the Marshlands Protection Act. In December 2011, the administrative law judge ruled in favor of the groups and overruled the Committee’s permit decision.

Following the decision, the development submitted a new application to the Committee for the same marina. On June 21, 2013, the Committee denied Bull River Bluff Properties’ application because it had failed to show that its water-related needs could not be met by an existing marina, 370 feet downstream from the development.

“This is not only a win for the Bull River, but to the public as a whole,” said Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus. “Protecting our public right to our rivers and marshes is a must, and in the end this unnecessary facility could not demonstrate the proper needs requirements. We are thrilled the Court upheld the Committee’s decision.”

To be granted a permit for a new boating facility in the state’s marshlands, the Marshlands Protection Act requires an applicant to demonstrate a need for the proposed facility, including a showing that the applicant’s demand cannot be satisfied by existing boating facilities serving the public.

“To ensure responsible use of coastal Georgia’s natural resources, careful enforcement of existing laws is essential and our legal victory underscores the importance of making sure that any proposed construction in the coastal marshlands is fully justified,” said David Kyler, executive director of Center for a Sustainable Coast.

The administrative law judge agreed with the coastal groups and the Committee, stating that the Marshlands Act “requires a balancing of private and public interests.” Bull River Bluff Properties, according to the judge, “failed to demonstrate that its asserted needs justify the significant alteration of coastal marshlands that would result from the construction of a 45-slip marina with a walkway of nearly 1,000 feet.”

“We are very pleased that the Committee’s decision has been upheld and hope the decision further clarifies what the Act requires from applicants proposing to construct new marinas,” said Emily Markesteyn, executive director of Ogeechee Riverkeeper.

About Savannah Riverkeeper
The Savannah Riverkeeper serves as the primary guardian of the Savannah River striving to respect, protect, and improve the entire river basin through education, advocacy, and action. We are a 501 c (3) non-profit organization funded by individuals and foundations that share our commitment to creating a clean and healthy river that sustains life and is cherished by its people.

About Center for a Sustainable Coast
The Center for a Sustainable Coast was formed in 1997 by a group of public-spirited environmental professionals and concerned citizens. The purpose of our non-profit membership organization is to improve the responsible use, protection, and conservation of coastal Georgia’s resources – natural, historic, and economic.

About Ogeechee Riverkeeper
Ogeechee RIVERKEEPER® exists for the Ogeechee, Canoochee, and coastal rivers, not the other way around. Accordingly, we measure our success not by totals of dues-paying members, dollars raised, or awards and recognitions, but by the quality of the water in the basin and the commitment of its citizens to protecting, preserving, and improving it. A hard-working, effective organization for the waters and people of the Ogeechee River basin: that is the vision for Ogeechee RIVERKEEPER®.

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