Not a shore thing 

Tybee council votes to allow building on beach dunes — but that still may never happen

ANGER IN his voice, Tybee Island City Councilman Eddie Crone railed against a local law that kept property owners from building on coastal sand dunes for years.

Under Tybee’s seven-year-old Shore Protection Act, the city had protected its dunes from development. And for good reason, coastal experts said.

These hills of sand — some ten feet high and covered with sea oats — are a critical barrier, keeping ocean waves from surging across this barrier island in a hurricane.

But Crone and other business advocates had a different view of the shoreline act. They called it bad for property owners — and overly strict.

“Tybee’s jurisdiction was taking people’s property,” Crone said during a break in the council’s meeting Thursday night. Some residents couldn’t build on dunes on their own property, Crone complained. “It was unfair.”

At least one Tybee hotel owner, Harry Spirides, agrees. Spirides has talked of bulldozing some of the widening dunes because they prevented his guests from playing frisbee on the sand.

Fed up with city dune protection rules, Crone led the charge Thursday night to get rid of them. And he and his supporters won, repealing the shoreline act 4-2, with council members Dick Smith and Paul Wolff dissenting.

But if the council majority jettisoned a stringent law, Tybee’s dunes remained under protection — if not by Tybee, then by Georgia itself, state and local officials said.

“We implement shore protection—no matter what,” vowed Brad Gane, with the Coastal Resources Division of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources.

Gane said he liked communities such as Jekyll Island and several other communities remaining involved with shoreline protection. But if Tybee bowed out, Gane promised that the state would do the job.

Though some council members talked of building on the dunes, Gane’s department rarely grants permission to build there. In the last 25 years, Gane said, he knew of no one who has been able to build a house on a dune.

Still, Gane did note that state law might make “possible” for a property owner to build a gazebo or another structure on the dune.

Under the state’s 1981 rules, any project built on the dunes must sit on the landward side of the dune and must maintain “the normal functions” of that area in minimizing damage from storms, waves and erosion.

Still, a DNR pamphlet noted, the state’s jurisdiction along the coast “is not a ‘no build’ zone.”

If Tybee’s shoreline act was more restrictive than the state’s, its repeal doesn’t mean open season on the dunes, Wolff noted.

“It doesn’t mean people can do what they want,” the councilman said. “They still have to come to the state to seek permission to build. It doesn’t open the door to all development.”

On Thursday night, environmentalists like Wolff had argued strongly against repeal of Tybee’s shoreline ordinance.

Also former council member Kathryn Williams read aloud a plea from a St. Simons’ group, the Center for a Sustainable Coast, which she belongs to.

Continued use of Tybee’s ordinance “would prevent damage to property and risk to lives,” the statement said.

Also opposed was another former council member, environmentalist Mallory Pearce who urged the council not to “rush to judgment” and allow people to build houses on the dunes.

Once Tybee’s shore protection act was repealed, city leaders took the news in stride.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Mayor Jason Buelterman said. “It was important to have a more restrictive ordinance to protect this island.”

Still, the mayor noted, “An agency like DNR doesn’t generally let people build.” cs


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