By law, Cumberland Island — the former wintertime playground of the Carnegies and Candlers where wild horses gambol among sea oat-covered dunes — must revert to as pristine a natural state as possible. Most homeowners eventually relinquish their property to the National Park Service.
Yet descendants and associates of the island’s wealthy owners want to build up to 10 homes on a beautiful 88-acre swath of central Cumberland near the island’s popular campground. Camden County zoning officials this week unanimously approved a request for a zoning variance. An appeal will likely be heard by county commissioners within 30 days.
Environmentalists and Cumberland lovers — many an Atlantan has taken the 45-minute ferry ride from St. Marys to camp under the stars or tour the ruins of the Dungeness mansion — decry the proposed development, especially on a federally designated seashore preserve.
“A lot of the island families still consider Cumberland to be theirs, but it belongs to the American public,” said Will Harlan, a magazine editor who wrote a best-seller about the national park and its denizens. “They basically want to find a way to stay out there forever. I don’t blame them; I’d love to live on Cumberland. To be able to live in a national park appeals to a lot of folks.”
Stephen Kinney, the St. Marys attorney representing the property owners, said the families have only the island’s best interests at heart.
“These families have been a part of the Cumberland Island community for over 90 years. They have a long history of being good stewards of the island,” Kinney said in an email. “My clients appreciate the unique character of the island and will work to ensure that any homes built will not detract from the island.”
Like Jekyll, Ossabaw and Georgia’s other barrier islands, Northern industrialists bought up Cumberland as a wintertime retreat. Steel magnate Thomas Carnegie’s family, beginning in the 1880s, built the Greyfield, Plum Orchard, Stafford and Dungeness mansions. Later, the Candlers of Atlanta, heirs to the Coca-Cola fortune, bought a chunk of Cumberland.
A bridge was never built onto Georgia’s largest and southernmost island. No paved road runs the length of the 18-mile-long island cherished by thousands of visitors for its unmarred beaches, fecund marshes, moss-covered oaks and Native American, Spanish, African-American and Gilded Age histories.
The 59-room Dungeness, though, burned nearly to the ground in 1959. John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette at the small First African Baptist Church on the island’s north end in 1996.
In 1972, the families negotiated with the National Park Service to create Cumberland Island National Seashore. Legislation a decade later ensured that most of the 36,000-acre island would never be developed. While limited construction would be allowed to enhance Cumberland’s recreational amenities, the “seashore shall be permanently preserved in its primitive state.”
Most of the 21 landowners bought out by the park service were granted “retained rights” allowing them to live on the island until they or their children (the deals varied) died. The feds would then take control of their land.
The Carnegies and Candlers didn’t sell their properties, which remain privately held and eligible for development. In 1998, some of the heirs bought the 88-acre tract of land that sits a quarter-mile above the Sea Camp campground and at the center of the current controversy. Now, according to their attorney, they want to subdivide it and “some members of the family also desire to eventually construct homes on the property.”
The land, which stretches from the marshlands to the beach, currently carries a “conservation preservation” zoning. Camden County rules require all subdivisions to be fronted by a paved road. But there are no paved roads on Cumberland. The families want the county to waive the requirement so they can build on a sandy lane.
Environmental groups, and nearly 5,000 concerned citizens who’ve signed an online petition opposing the rezoning, fear any new construction would violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law mandating Cumberland’s return to a wilder, more natural state.
“If visitors to the island encounter bulldozers, noise-pollution, an 87+ acre development, and a decimated environment, the ramifications will be far-reaching,” Alex Kearns, who runs St. Marys EarthKeepers, wrote to Camden County zoning members. “Consider, too, the profound environmental cost: old growth forest destroyed, watersheds (sic) effected, and the displacement/destruction of indigenous species.”
The families have remained close-mouthed. The Very Rev. Sam Candler, the dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, wouldn’t comment for the record. Thornton Morris, an attorney who has a home on the island and helped broker the 1972 deal, said he’d return a reporter’s call but didn’t. Kinney, the attorney, would only accept questions in writing.
“My clients are very private and confidential about such matters,” he said. “They do have a history of a quiet, honorable and respectful presence on Cumberland. They want to remain as quiet and respectful as possible.”
Gary Ingram, the park service’s superintendent of Cumberland, also didn’t return calls. During Wednesday’s rezoning hearing, though, he hoped the development would be compatible with the park’s conservation mandate.
“We want to know what it means for the future,” he said, according to The Brunswick News. “We want to preserve and protect the island for future generations.”
A dozen additional parcels of land, totaling 1,000 acres, are held privately and in perpetuity, the park service says. Environmentalists fear rezoning the 88-acre swath of sand and maritime forest sets a bad precedent.
“A substantial number of Georgians … are concerned about this request because they believe that it may be a harbinger of future development on the iconic island, a place recognized internationally for its natural beauty and wild character,” Bill Sapp, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, wrote recently.
5 things to know about Cumberland Island
- It is the largest and southernmost of Georgia’s barrier islands. It became a protected National Seashore in 1972 and features a 9,800-acre wilderness area. Wildlife that can be found on the island include great blue herons, wild turkeys, peregrine falcons, armadillos, feral hogs and about 175 feral horses that are descendants of domesticated horses that were abandoned in 1949.
- The island is accessible only by ferry or private boat, and no more than 300 visitors are permitted on the island at any one time.
- In the 1730s, James Oglethorpe laid out two forts, one on each end of the 18-mile-long island. Aspiring planters then came to the island in the 1750s, once slavery was allowed there.
- In the early 1880s, Thomas Morrison Carnegie, a brother of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, came to the island with his wife, Lucy Coleman Carnegie. At one time, the Carnegies owned about 90 percent of the island. A favorite stop for Cumberland sightseers is the Dungeness Ruins, the remains of the 59-room Queen Anne-style mansion that Thomas and Lucy Carnegie built in 1885. The home was vacated in 1925 and burned in 1959. The Carnegies in 1901 also built what is now the exclusive Greyfield Inn. First, the private home of one of the Carnegies’ daughters, it became an inn in 1962.
- In 1996, John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette on the island in the tiny First African Baptist Church. The “Kennedy church,” as it is often called now, is located in Settlement, once the home to the African-American employees of the Carnegie family.