Island development sparks concern in Decatur
March 29, 2017
Horses paw at the frothy white shoreline, just 20 feet from beachcombers. In the morning, when the silence nears its end, an armadillo nuzzles the leaf-strewn grounds, searching for food.
The home of these animals, Cumberland Island, is one of the last undeveloped barrier islands of the coast of Georgia.
On the approximately 18 miles of sandy, shell-speckled beaches, not a single high-rise, house or even cottage is visible.
When catching the pink and orange-tinted sunrise over the water, visitors rarely encounter others.
Chief Interpretation and Education officer at the Cumberland Island National Park Service (NPS), Jill Hamilton-Anderson, believes the lack of development helps make the Cumberland Island experience novel.
“You don’t have to walk very far onto the beach or into the live oak canopy to feel almost entirely alone,” she said.
She thinks the isolation from technology and the limited phone service appeals to visitors.
Decatur resident Joy Pope is a frequent visitor of Cumberland Island. She first ventured onto the island when she was 14.
Pope agrees that the distance from technology increases the quality of the visitor’s experience.
“Somehow, time really does move slower if you aren’t distracted,” she said.
Pope can’t help but notice the island’s past.
“The history and nature are coming together,” Pope said. “You’re walking around Dungeness [a ruined mansion] and experiencing the feeling of it being haunted by the people who lived there, by slaves who worked the fields, and at the same time you have this wild cacophony of tree frogs.”
Hamilton-Anderson recognizes the strength of the connection between the island and visitors like Pope.
“It’s so remarkable how intimate people feel about this island,” Hamilton-Anderson said.
Recently, that intimacy has been put to the test. Only a half a mile from Sea Camp, the most popular campsite, private owners have proposed a development.
The development would be subdivided into 10 lots and would be under the legislation of Camden County. According to county law, to erect a structure, there must be a paved road. Only a singluar dirt road runs through the island, so developers had to get special permission to build. The county held a hearing, and private owners walked away with a variance permitting them to build on their land, even without a paved road.
Former Atlanta Journal Constiution reporter Dan Chapman covered the development.
When he attempted to speak with landowners, they seemed to be interested in using the land for private use.
He says the future of the homes is still ambiguous.
“That doesn’t preclude [the owners] from selling homes to other people,” Chapman said. “It’s their land. They can ultimately do what they want with it.”
Chapman noted that developing the land could cause legal trouble.
“It’s a national seashore,” he said. “By law the land is supposed to revert back to its natural state.”
Even though the owners who want to develop obtained permission from the county, the potential development has spurred controversy. According to Hamilton-Anderson, frustrated environmentalists often call and email the National Park Service (NPS).
They created a petition with over 7,000 supporters on Change.org, and it will be sent to the Camden County Clerk, Katie Bishop.
An appeal is scheduled for April 8.
Like many others, Pope opposes the development.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that it would change,” she said. “Cumberland is meaningful for me because I go there, and I relive the other times that I’ve been there.”
Even though Pope doesn’t approve of the development, she realizes it may be out of the visitors’ hands.
“If there’s no way of going backwards, I’d ask they do it in a way that doesn’t impact everyone’s experience there,” Pope said.
The NPS hears the complaints, but Hamilton-Anderson recognizes their limitations.
“All we can do at the NPS is voice what we value,” she said.
With this in mind, the NPS has a “difficult job in balancing making sure the visitor has a really enjoyable time on the island and also ensuring that the visitor respects the land of the private residents,” Hamilton-Anderson said.
Part of respecting the private residents, she said, is understanding that the quiet, hidden beauty of the island is meaningful to them as well.
“The [residents] of Cumberland island love the island as much as the park service does,” Hamilton-Anderson said.
This is something that the visitors and owners share.
“[The visitors] feel a sense of ownership to it. They find in Cumberland a connection, a personal connection, that they don’t want changed in any way when they go back,” Hamilton-Anderson said.
For Pope, the connection prevails.
“I still remember exactly the way it felt on my first trip there, when I was 14 years old,” she said. “I got into my tent, and I was lying there, and I had never been so happy. I was just so turned on by nature and beauty, and the wildness of the world. Every time that I’ve been there since, when I get in my tent at night and I lie there, I am reminded of the way that felt.”
Cumberland has also attracted Decatur students, only a little older than Pope was when she first journeyed to the island.
Sophomore Maddie Myers has only been to Cumberland Island once, yet the trees draped in Spanish moss and the multicolored tents peeking through the palm fronds make up one of her favorite vacation spots.
While the expansive beach and dense forest impressed Myers, the crumbling ruins of Dungeness were particularly captivating.
“When [we] went to Dungeness, there wasn’t anybody there,” Myers said. “It was really cool to see it alone, and we were able to interact with it. If you keep walking past Dungeness, and you go to the beaches behind it, there’s a giant mound of sharks teeth and little crabs.”
The ruins weren’t the only special part of the trip for Myers.
“[Cumberland Island] is secluded,” she said. “You don’t have internet access so you don’t have any distractions. It’s just you and nature,” she said.
In addition to enjoying the outdoors, Myers felt herself cultivating new friendships and strengthening old ones.
“I didn’t know some of the people there, and I think not having our cellphones pushed us to become close,” she said.
Sophomore Mason Koski accompanied Myers and felt the same way.
“Since you don’t have any distractions you’re always with the people. You’re spending genuine time with them,” she said.
Unlike Myers, Koski isn’t a first-timer on the island.
Even on trips with bad weather, Koski finds she always has a good time.
One time, Koski said, it was raining, and she was on the beach.
“All of the people, probably 15 people, were all under the tent trying to shield ourselves from this crazy rainstorm,” she said. “It was really fun.”
The news about the development concerns Koski.
“I think that kind of ruins the whole Cumberland Island feel,” she said.
Koski hopes the developers “try not to cut down all the trees, and try to make down-to-earth camping houses.”
Despite whatever changes may occur with the island’s development, Hamilton-Anderson reiterates that the park offers a valuable experience for everyone.
“This is a national park,” she said. “It is something that belongs to every American citizen. It’s a place that we want to invite everyone to come and visit.”