Conservationists warn against bill to grant ownership of Georgia’s coastal salt marshes

Coastal Georgia lawmakers are backing legislation that would make it easier for owners of marshland property under grants that date back to the 1700s to permanently establish that ownership.

But opponents argue the bill would make the process so easy it would encourage false claimants to step forward and take advantage of state tax credits at the expense of the rightful owners of the environmentally fragile salt marshes — the public.

About 36,000 acres of coastal marshland in Georgia are privately owned, about 10% of the state’s total marshland, through titles that go back to grants from the English king or early Georgia governors.

But when owners seek to establish clear title to their properties, they must navigate a cumbersome, expensive process through the state attorney general’s office that can take years to complete.

The foot-dragging by the state is on purpose, Jerry Williams, who owns a marshland tract on the Ogeechee River, charged Jan. 11 at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. Any salt marsh not owned privately is owned by the state as a public trust.

“They throw everything at the law they can to try to delay, to try to muddy the waters, to make it cost-prohibitive for a private landowner to defend their title.”

House Bill 370 would turn over the process of reviewing claims to salt marsh property to the State Properties Commission, which would have 180 days to decide whether a claim is valid.

“It places a shot clock on the review and response,” said state Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, the bill’s chief sponsor. As a lawyer and member of the Judiciary Committee, Reeves is working with a group of coastal House members to shepherd the legislation.

The Judiciary Committee passed the bill last year, but it made no further progress before the Crossover Day deadline for legislation to pass at least one of the two chambers in the General Assembly.

Reeves said a key provision in the bill limits the use of privately owned marshland to conservation purposes.

“There’s not going to be any development. There’s not going to be any construction,” he said. “The Georgia coast is one of the jewels in the crown of this state, a beautiful area. This bill will protect it.”

But Alice Miller-Keyes, vice president of coastal conservation for the Brunswick-based environmental organization 100 Miles, said House Bill 370 would flip the burden of proof for ownership of coastal marshlands from the property owner to the state. If the State Properties Commission fails to decide a case within the 180-day deadline, the title is certified by default, she said.

“This could result in thousands of acres of marsh being privatized without a valid crown grant,” Miller-Keyes said. “This bill could facilitate a massive giveaway of Georgia’s pride and joy — our coastal marshlands.”

And what will prevent the people from developing the land once full title is established?

April Lipscomb, a lawyer with the Atlanta-based Southern Environmental Law Center, said the bill’s provision restricting development of salt marsh land properties is vague and unenforceable at best.

“There are no deadlines for people to meet in order to show they are restricting the use to conservation,” she said.

Kevin Lang, a lawyer from Athens who owns property on Little Cumberland Island, said the bill is designed to make it easier for owners of marshland property to qualify for conservation tax credits.

“This bill is not a conservation bill. This bill is a money bill,” he said. “This bill is about creating a mitigation bank where someone can sell mitigation credits for restoration.”

The Judiciary Committee passed the bill and sent it on to the House Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full House.