April 21, 2024

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 wetland protections.

The state passed a law to protect coastal salt marshes half a century agomeaning that although Georgia now has only 100 miles of coastline, it is home half a million hectares of salt marsh — the second largest amount of salt marsh in the country and a third of the marshes on the East Coast. Those marshes absorb the force of strong storm surges and carbon capture in their grasses and mud.

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

But at a public meeting last week about the proposed change, state officials tried to tamp down 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 anything within the actual Coastal Wetlands Protection Act itself. It is not intended, nor will it be, rapid bulkheads or shoreline hardening.”

Salt marshes exist along much of the nation’s coastline, from New England to Florida, along the Gulf and on the West Coast—but many have been degraded or destroyed by development, industry, and other human activities. Multimillion-dollar efforts in progress is in many of those places on restore marsh habitat. In the Southeast, coastal managers have a new regional initiative aims to restore and better protect the marshes in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

In Georgia, most structures built in the state’s well-preserved coastal marshes require a permit under the Marsh Protection Act, also known as CMPA. This applies to large docks, marinas, or a length of bulkhead—a kind of small wall along the waterfront designed to prevent shoreline erosion from someone’s backyard.

Those projects also get a 50-foot buffer, a zone of dry land where no building or paving is allowed because it could affect the marsh. The buffer line is measured from the part of the project farthest from the marsh, known to regulators as the “upland component.” For a marina, this may include buildings for dry dock boat storage, bathrooms or a store. For shoreline stabilization such as a bulkhead, the upland component can only be underground anchors that hold the structure in place.

The buffer rule is what CRD wants to change because the agency says it can be a problem for smaller projects.

Andrews explained at the public meeting last week that the buffer for a bulkhead on a residential property may run through the house. In an example she showed, the bumper encompasses most of a home’s backyard. That meant the homeowner could not build a shed, fire pit or swing set without special permission from the CRD, which the agency said created a burden for both homeowners and the agency.

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

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

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

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

And advocates said this permissive question points to a larger concern: development too close to the marsh.

Josiah Watts grew up on Sapelo Island and now works for the environmental group One Hundred Miles. He told the meeting participants that the marsh is sacred as well as a protective buffer for the coast, and the state should reconsider building near it.

“When we talk about dishes, we also talk about development,” he said. “This means that there is construction and construction near these spaces on the coast and the marsh.”

The Division of Coastal Resources is accepting public comments on the proposed change to marsh buffers until January 19.

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