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Development tide rising on St. Simons Island

Some want cityhood to limit growth, others fear lack of affordable housing.

It was only a proposal for a gas station along Frederica Road, but it ignited the latest “Oh-my-God-we’re-becoming-another-Atlanta” frenzy in this seaside community favored by sun-seeking refugees from, yes, Atlanta.

About 400 people turned out for an island planning meeting last winter to oppose The Flash Foods. A follow-up meeting a month later drew a spillover crowd of 500. The gas station didn’t stand a chance. The slow-the-growth crowd smelled blood.

Glynn County commissioners responded with two successive 90-day construction moratoriums on the island and lower density requirements for builders.

Still, the fear of overdevelopment rekindled long-smoldering efforts to turn St. Simons and neighboring Sea Island into a standalone city.

“Incorporation will allow people who live here, who have a vested interest in this place, to make sure the island is the way we want it to be,” said George Ragsdale, an ex-Atlantan who recently retired to St. Simons. “It’s not to stop growth, development or progress. It’s about taking more control. Because, ultimately, if the climate changes people will stop coming here.”

Ragsdale is leading the incorporation charge, which faces a long haul. It would require legislative approval for a referendum, and then a local vote.

Ragsdale comes naturally to the task. A decade ago, he led the successful effort to citify Milton in north Fulton County. He said he wants to prevent St. Simons from succumbing to the same over-development woes of Atlanta. “Traffic at Crabapple corners in Milton was horrific,” he said.

Others see less altruistic motives — keeping out new residents with less money.

“It’s kind of snooty of them for wanting to keep St. Simons like it is,” said Paul Forsyth, a home inspector from Snellville who moved to the island in 2002. “I’d hate to see too many people come, but who am I to say you can’t come live here?”

Previous failure

This isn’t the island’s first incorporation rodeo. A 1996 referendum failed by a wide margin. A straw poll of residents eight years later favored incorporation, but Glynn County’s mainland residents mostly opposed it. Local legislators killed another incorporation push in 2006.

The recession and its tepid recovery slowed development. St. Simons’ population, 14,846, remains about what it was in 2000. Traffic crossing the Torras Causeway leading onto the island dropped from 30,000 cars daily in 2010 to 23,000 last year.

And the venerable Sea Island Co., purveyors of upscale home and hotel living accessible only by gated entryway, went bankrupt in 2010. The family-owned resort company controlled huge plots of developed and undeveloped St. Simons land. Employees hailed from every corner of Glynn County. Jones family members were viewed as benevolent dictators and nary a St. Simons development or landscaping decision escaped their typically well-mannered eye.

“When they left, they left a void,” said Cesar Rodriguez, an ex-Atlanta shopping center developer who has lived on St. Simons since 2001. “When their properties went into foreclosure, the zoning went with it and the new owners developed to standards (that) are not compatible and out of scale with certain areas of the island.”

As the recovery took hold, land jettisoned by Sea Island Co., including a 2,500-acre tract on St. Simons’ northern end, filled with million-dollar homes. Subdivisions sprouted, or germinated, along Frederica, Demere and Sea Island roads.

Developers replaced individual homes with condos. Each new development tore at the island’s beloved live oak canopy. By 2015, population and traffic had returned to 2000 heights.

Traffic jams along the two-lane roads blocked access to subdivisions and shopping, especially during busy summer months. And, still, 8,000 undeveloped lots beckon builders.

Mainland commissioners

Ragsdale and others say county commissioners, most from the mainland, saw only property tax dollar signs with every new development.

“We have a county commission, just like the one in Fulton county, that was not acting in the best interests of the people on the island,” Ragsdale said during a recent windshield tour of the island. “Ultimately, it’s about taking more local control.”

Glynn commissioners, just as the Flash Foods proposal became a flash point, imposed the successive 90-day moratoriums. They reduced the number of future St. Simons homes from 4 to 2 per acre. In the village, the number of new townhouses per development was slashed from 10 to 5.

“People come down here and say, ‘Oh, gee, we’ve got the same issues up in Sandy Springs or Dahlonega or Roswell,” said David Hainley, the county’s development director. “If you don’t spend money on infrastructure, you’re going to get some issues. But we’re not the only community that experiences that.”

In October the sewage pump station on the north end reached capacity. New sewer hook-ups were prohibited except for already sanctioned projects. Two planned subdivisions were postponed. It could be two years before any new developments are approved in the bulldozer-ready north end.

Second homes

Hainley estimates 20 percent of the homes on the island are second homes for well-to-do Atlantans and others. Now many of the retiring baby boomers are moving here permanently. And they bring certain expectations.

“Marietta, Johns Creek, Norcross, Alpharetta — there’s a resurgence going on downtown,” Rodriguez, 70, said. “They’ve gotten control of their planning and zoning. We are so far behind here. I just don’t think the county is equipped to deal with the kind of attention this island requires.”

Cityhood proponents say local control of zoning, planning and traffic would slow development. They would also have greater control over their money (and maybe incur higher property taxes). Residents of St. Simons and Sea Island account for almost 20 percent of Glynn County’s population, yet cover 60 percent of the county’s tax base.

Incorporation worries Pat Hodnett Cooper, who owns the island’s largest real estate company.

“I am against incorporation because it will just make the mainland and the island more divided and we have worked so hard to bring our community together,” she said. “I’m not sure their whole reason for incorporating isn’t to stop development. I would like to see some better ideas about development, but you can’t stop it.”

The proliferation of townhomes and condos, costing less than standalone homes, dismays some in the cityhood crowd. Density means more people, cars, traffic and demands on water, sewer and roads, they say.

Double the average

The average worth of a St. Simons home is $310,732 — more than double the value Georgia-wide. An incorporated St. Simons and Sea Island would create one of the wealthiest cities in the state.

Scott Steilen, president of the Sea Island Co. — a company renowned for its ocean casual chic where beachfront homesites run to $5.5 million — thinks reasonably affordable housing is needed.

“If you don’t provide opportunities for young families to move to St. Simons and put down roots and grow, this community will age out and there will be significant problems,” said Steilen, who opposes incorporation.

He added, “I haven’t met any pro-incorporation folks who aren’t either retired or on the way to retirement.”

The median age of St. Simons residents is 53.3, vs. 35.9 for the state as a whole.

“We love our Atlanta folks and, like people from all over, they’ve found St. Simons to be like no other place,” Hodnett Cooper said. “Some, though, think, ‘OK, we found our beautiful retreat and now we don’t want anybody else coming in.’ “

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