In a significant boost for coastal conservationists, the Fulton County Superior Court has for the second time ruled that the state erred in issuing a permit to a developer to build three bridges across state-owned marshland for a planned subdivision on three marsh hammocks near Savannah.
In a ruling issued Friday, Judge Constance Russell said that the coastal marshlands of Georgia are “an irreplaceable resource [that] should not be altered without full consideration…” She remanded the issue back to the Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee with instructions to consider whether the project “in its entirety” will harm the public interest by unreasonably degrading the marsh resources.
“This is a very welcome ruling because it ensures that the committee will for the first time consider all of the impacts of this project on the surrounding environment, setting a clear direction for other development proposals that come down the pike,” said SELC attorney Chris DeScherer.
Emerald Pointe Development, LLC proposes building numerous high-end homes on three marsh hammocks ¾ small upland areas that dot the coast of Georgia. The committee issued a permit in 2001 for three bridges to connect the hammocks to the mainland, having reviewed merely the environmental impact of the bridges, and not the entire development. SELC appealed the permit on behalf of Center for a Sustainable Coast, Sierra Club, and Altamaha Riverkeeper. It was the first legal challenge of a vehicular bridge permit issued under the state’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Act. The groups said that runoff laced with fertilizers, pesticides, oil and other contaminants from the subdivisions would threaten water quality and wildlife habitat in the fragile marsh ecosystem.
SELC first challenged the permit in 2001; in October of that year Judge Russell ruled the state had failed to consider the project’s full impact on the marsh. Several conditions were subsequently attached to the permit, which was again challenged by SELC, resulting in last week’s court ruling.
“We’re pleased that the committee finally has the chance to meet its mandate to protect the state’s marsh system for the benefit of the public,” said DeScherer. “We don’t want to go through this process a third time.”
One attorney who had a great deal to do with the success of this case is Smith, Gambrell & Russell’s environmental attorney, partner Steve O’Day (Senior Litigation Counsel by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).