Advocates raise concern about proposed change to Coastal Georgia marsh protections

The king tide rises on the back river marsh, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, near Savannah, Ga. Regulators want to change a rule designed to protect the state’s marshes but advocates say the seemingly small change points to a need for a broader review of marsh protections. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

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Coastal Georgia regulators want to change a rule designed to protect the state’s marshes, which serve as a buffer against storms and rising sea levels and are a vital part of the coastal ecosystem. But advocates say the seemingly small change points to a need for a broader review of marsh protections.

The state passed a law to protect its coastal salt marsh half a century ago, meaning that now, though Georgia has a relatively small coastline, it has a large amount of the East Coast’s remaining intact salt marsh. Those marshes absorb the power of strong storm surges and capture carbon in their grasses and mud. 

So coastal advocates are especially sensitive to changes in the state’s marsh law – concerned that modifications to allow more development could erode protections, leading to actual erosion of the coastline itself. 

But at a public meeting on the proposed change earlier this month, state officials tried to assuage concerns. 

“This amendment is not intended to roll back any marsh protections,” said Jill Andrews, chief of coastal management for the state’s Coastal Resources Division. “It will not change a thing within the actual Coastal Marshlands Protection Act itself. It is not intended, nor will it, fast-track bulkheads or shoreline hardening.”

Most structures built in Georgia’s coastal marshes need a permit under that marsh protection law, also known as CMPA. That goes for large docks, marinas, or a length of bulkhead designed to prevent shoreline erosion of someone’s backyard. 

The proposed change deals with a 50-foot buffer, which is measured from what’s known as the “upland component” of a project with a CMPA permit. For a marina, that might include buildings for dry dock boat storage, bathrooms, or a shop. For shoreline stabilization like a bulkhead, the upland component might only be underground tie-backs that hold the structure in place. In the 50-foot zone of dry land extending back from that upland component, no building or paving is allowed because it might affect the marsh.

But CRD says this can be a problem for smaller projects. At the public meeting last week, Andrews explained that the buffer for a bulkhead on a residential property might run through the house. In an example she showed, the buffer encompasses most of a home’s backyard. That means the homeowner couldn’t build a shed, fire pit, or swing set without special permission from the CRD, which the agency says creates a burden both for homeowners and for the agency.

So, the agency is proposing a rule change to exempt small projects from the upland component buffer requirement. Andrews and other CRD officials at the meeting stressed that shoreline stabilization projects and anything else built in the marsh will still need CMPA permits, even if the project is exempted from the buffer rule.

But critics said it’s time for a more comprehensive review. Instead of the rule change, several environmental groups are calling for a stakeholder committee to take a holistic look at how projects are approved and what rules protect the marsh.

Speaking at the meeting, Bill Sapp of the Southern Environmental Law Center said bulkheads are particularly worrisome because while building them can stabilize a shoreline in the short term, they can do long-term damage to the marsh. And though each project is small, Sapp said they can add up.

“There are going to be more and more bulkheads built along the Georgia coast over the years as the sea level rises,” he said.

Advocates said this permitting question points to a bigger concern: development too close to the marsh.

Josiah Watts grew up on Sapelo Island and now works for environmental group One Hundred Miles. He told attendees at the meeting the marsh is sacred as well as a protective buffer for the coast, and the state should rethink allowing building close to it.

“When we’re talking about bulkheads, we’re also talking about development,” he said. “That means that there is construction and building near these spaces on the coast and the marsh.”

The Coastal Resources Division is accepting public comments about the proposed change to marsh buffers until Jan. 19.