The Rezoning of Private Property on Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cumberland Island National Seashore is a place of legend. Its tidal marshes, undeveloped beaches and dunes, and lush maritime forests make it one of America's most unique, spectacular and memorable barrier islands and National Parks. Its protection remains one of the Georgia Conservancy's top priorities.
Cumberland Island is also unique in that there are currently 1,000 acres of private land within the bounds of the National Seashore – much of which is held by the descendants of the island’s original and longtime owners. Since the establishment of the National Seashore in 1972, these private acres have been managed in a way that has largely preserved the wild character and ecological integrity of the island. Today, the increasingly natural state of Cumberland is under threat, as the owners of these 1,000 acres have requested a rezoning of private land on the island that could allow for the construction of dozens of homes.
Last winter, Lumar LLC, a Cumberland Island property owner, was granted a hardship variance by the Camden County Planning Commission to divide an 87.51-acre tract of their land into 10 parcels. For the owners to sub-divide, a hardship variance is required because the lots would front an unpaved road, Cumberland Island’s Main Road, instead of a paved road. The variance has been appealed by a number of conservation organizations and concerned citizens.
Camden County zoning regulations currently regulate the land use activities of this tract and of other private holdings on Cumberland Island. The Lumar LLC tract and other private holdings are currently zoned by the county as a Conservation Preservation (CP) district, which carries a number of restrictions regarding how the property owner can use the land, including a prohibition of the installation or construction of any residential structure.
The Lumar LLC tract is directly adjacent to Cumberland Island National Seashore’s popular Sea Camp and spans the east-west width of the island from beach to marsh. Originating at Sea Camp, Parallel Trail, which is the main access point to Cumberland’s Wilderness Area for the majority of day hikers and backcountry campers, bisects the Lumar LCC tract as it winds its way through Cumberland’s dense and remote maritime forest. Though this area of private landholding has never been owned by the National Park Service during the more than for 40-year history of the National Seashore, it has been wonderfully maintained in conservation by Lumar LLC and its previous owners, the Rockefellers.
In March, in an effort to avoid future hardship variance requests from owners of other fee simple tracts on Cumberland, as well as subsequent appeals by concerned organizations and citizens, Camden County, at the behest of island land owners, proposed the rezoning of the entire 1,000 acres of private property on the island.
The potential construction of numerous homes on Cumberland is well beyond the scope of any development on the barrier island in the last 75 years. It is also completely out-of-line with the collaborative conservation planning that has sought to maintain ecological connectivity and a uniquely unspoiled visitor experience on the island. To put this issue in perspective for those not familiar with Cumberland Island, imagine new homes being built in the Grand Canyon or in Yosemite Valley – crown jewels of the same National Park System to which Cumberland Island belongs.
The Purpose Statement for Cumberland Island National Seashore states that: “Cumberland Island National Seashore maintains the primitive, undeveloped character of one of the largest and most ecologically diverse barrier islands on the Atlantic coast, while preserving scenic, scientific, and historical values and providing outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation and solitude.”
The Georgia Conservancy is currently working with a number of other organizations, both local and national, to resolve this issue in a manner that is both respectful to private property rights and to the purpose statement for Cumberland Island National Seashore.
We urge the Camden County Board of Commissioners to maintain current zoning regulations as they pertain properties zoned CP and UDC on Cumberland Island so as to ensure that private residential structures will not be permitted and that future land-use activities on Cumberland Island be excluded from any and all stable and active dune systems.
This current issue is a reminder to all that the work to fully realize the purpose of Cumberland Island National Seashore is not complete, even four decades after its establishment by Congress.
It is vital that the Camden County Board of Commissioners, the National Park Service, private landowners on Cumberland Island and the greater conservation community in Georgia work in concert to forward the vision and stated purpose of Cumberland Island National Seashore as a primitive island accessible to the general public for education, relaxation and passive recreation. This collaborative effort will be needed to build trust by respecting private property rights, yet be tempered by the need to continue the work that has protected this wonderful island so well. The heart and soul of this incredible National Park is at stake.