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The strange case of Jekyll Island's 'oversight'

You want to hear a really funny piece from the current state legislative session? Try this line delivered with a straight face by state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry:

"There is no need in adding more overview committees when we already have oversight now. The Jekyll Island Authority has done a good job and always protected Jekyll Island."

If you know anything about the history of Jekyll Island, Tolleson's little joke ought to crack you up.

Jekyll Island is probably the most abused, misused and exploited piece of real estate ever owned by the state of Georgia. Much of the 60-year-long assault on Jekyll's precious resources has been conducted right under the collective noses of the Jekyll Island Authority and often at its behest.

Tolleson, the Senate's natural resources chair and clearly an agent of Gov. Sonny "the Broker" Perdue, delivered his praise of the Jekyll Island Authority's stewardship as he killed a measure to protect the island from further exploitation.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, had tried vainly to gain committee support for a bill that would rescue Jekyll from being turned over to a new generation of robber barons, like the multimillionaires who owned and developed Jekyll until the middle of World War II.

Shortages of money and labor and the appearance of German submarines finally cooled the fat-cats' ardor for the island. Gov. M. E. Thompson arranged for the state to purchase Jekyll for just $675,000 in 1947. Claiming Thompson wantonly wasted public funds buying Jekyll, Herman Talmadge defeated Thompson in the next governor's election. In truth, Jekyll was one of the few bargains Georgia taxpayers ever received.

After the Talmadge crowd took charge, the carnival of greed and foolishness opened up for business. Here are samples:

• One state senator backed up a moving van to the expensive homes on Jekyll and hauled away tons of irreplaceable furniture. Many of the pieces later turned up in antique stores along the Atlantic Seaboard. The senator died of a self-inflicted bullet wound.

• Developers grandly announced that the first motel to be built on Jekyll would be called the Wanderer in honor of the famous sailing ship of the same name - the last vile slave-smuggling vessel to land with its human cargo on Jekyll and possibly the last to land on U.S. shores. Talk about bad public relations.

• Against the advice of nationally known fisheries experts, the Jekyll Authority insisted on constructing a gigantic public fishing pier extending out over the ocean. The costly pier was placed at a point where currents are so swift that catching fish was impossible.

• The authority granted permission to another developer to bulldoze dunes and generally tear up parts of Jekyll's beach and marshes to construct an apartment hotel that never quite worked out.

• The authority allowed construction on the beach of a massive plastic water slide - easily the tackiest piece of beach equipment ever assembled - that could be seen from outer space.

There's more worth telling, but the above ought to be enough to demonstrate the wonderful comedic talent of Tolleson.

To be sure, the Jekyll Authority's membership over the years has included dedicated and knowledgeable men and women determined to protect the island. Without them, Jekyll might now be little more than an island slum or perhaps a New Jersey-esque garbage dump.

Still, too many Jekyll Authority members have viewed the smallest of Georgia's barrier islands as little more than a target for profit-hungry real estate guys.

Now, some of Perdue's best buddies are proposing a grandiose development of condos and shopping areas on the largely undeveloped south end of the island. They would tear down the old 4-H Nature Center to make way for the Hilton Head-like complex. On paper, the plan looks marvelous.

The proposal enjoys the backing of Jekyll Authority Chairman Ben Porter, who slipped off the Natural Resources Board to become a coastal developer and to lobby mightily for reducing the marshland development-protective buffer from 100 feet to 25 feet. Powerhouse lobbyists Joe Tanner, a retired Natural Resources Department chief, and Harold Reheis, the state's former environmental protection director, are actively promoting the Jekyll buildup.

Of course, no one is exactly certain how these former guardians of Georgia's natural resources would protect the endangered sea turtles and rare birds that nest on south Jekyll - or what would happen to one of the last undisturbed beaches on the Atlantic.

One other thing: Jekyll is said to be haunted. Some old-timers believe the island is cursed perhaps by some of the sick and dying 400 slaves who were dumped there by the Wanderer or by the poor farmers who were cheated out of their holdings and run off the island when the first robber barons moved in.

Whatever the case is, Jekyll has a twisted history of magnificent plans that failed and callous cronyism that still sneers at the marvel of this extraordinary state treasure.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net.

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