BY Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
April 29, 2008
EMINENT DOMAIN IN THE GOLDEN ISLES
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- From my home the "mainland" is a drive across the causeway into Brunswick, Ga. - the gateway to our St. Simons Island and, just a mile or two further south, the entrance to Jekyll Island, the millionaire's playground of the 1930's and the jewel among these Golden Isles of Georgia.
Brunswick has a long and illustrious history in its own right, dating back to 1771 and is the county seat of Glynn County. The Port of Brunswick is one of the highest-ranking ports on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and it was here that the famous workhorse of ships was created and built during WWII, the Liberty Ship, named for the most part after famous Americans.
In spite of its history as shipbuilder, or the "Shrimp Capital of the World," Brunswick, the city, went into a downhill slide and it's only in the last dozen years that renewal projects have brought this lovely historic city into focus as a charming, authentic, city on the southeast coast of Georgia just 30 miles north of the Florida border.
One by one, in what is now known as the Downtown Historic District, structures were gutted and restored to the original splendor of the Victorian Era. No one wanted to tear down the old and put up the new; no, they came to gentrify the city to its original place as more than a train station for passengers going elsewhere.
Looking at the streets adjacent to the County Court House in the downtown area, architects did not find it necessary to build a cement and glass office building for lawyers and law firms. Instead, they decided that quaint pre-war houses could be spruced up and refurbished for those law firms, counselors, therapists or advocates needing ready access to a judge in the courthouse, or a defendant next door in the county jail.
Brunswick is looking good. Tourists no longer just pass by on their way to the Barrier Islands of the coast; they come to Brunswick from all over. Restaurants, outdoor cafes and antique shops opened, and live theater came to the historic Ritz Theater. There are bookstores, walking tours, art galleries, a first-class public library, and glorious sunsets beyond the handsome waterfront. The streets are clean, traffic is manageable and there is a comfortable police presence.
The population of Brunswick is growing - not only within the city limits but into the county, and gentrification is spreading along the streets that fan out from the downtown core. This is not to suggest that new building is not going on. It is. Liberty Harbor plans 1,600 high-end condos, and when that project is complete they plan to build a 350-slip marina and an expansive waterfront with a boardwalk and a 4-star hotel. They call their concept an "urban village."
All of this brings mixed feelings among us locals: after all, Brunswick is already an urban village, a real not a conceptual one, that is growing and developing all the time. And thus, the conflict began.
It started with one lawn sign on one street: MOVE THE JAIL. Then there were one or two on other streets, and then more, until now nearly every street boasts a dozen signs, and some simply say, MTJ. Everyone knows what it means. The Glynn County Jail is in Brunswick, and although it is not an eyesore, it has to be expanded; now, county commissioners plan to purchase the land outright or exercise their right to use "eminent domain" to build a new jail right on the waterfront, next to the planned Liberty Harbor. Sometimes, of course, one developer influences a county commission to adopt such an odd and unpleasant placement in order to frustrate the plans of the original developer, and allow the second to build what he wants instead. The public isn't hearing any of that, though - so far.
When citizens of Brunswick started paying attention, it appeared that some license had already been taken by the commissioners. In the newspaper and on daytime talk radio, Brunswick residents are livid. They don't believe it when they're told why it's not feasible to move the jail far out into the county. They're told that transporting prisoners to and from the courthouse would cost taxpayers more than the county budget allows.
The Glynn County Courthouse would have to move as well. Lawyers and those others near the courthouse will have to move with it. And all those restaurants, shops, galleries, will fade away and gentrification will slow down. They say they depend on the employees in those offices for their lunch trade. What will the residents put in their own backyards to support the lovely little historic village they ran to embrace? It all spells catastrophe for Brunswick, and some wonder why and whether it is.
To me, there is no question that the jail has to be expanded. The jail population in 2006 was 471 and it was close to that in 2007. There is already early release, and it often seems that repeat offenders have turned the heavy metal gates of the jail into one big revolving door. And the aging prison population is creating budget problems associated with health care and similar concerns. They do need a new facility.
The "NIMBY" factor is significant (NIMBY stands for "not in my back yard," and "NIMBYs" is often used a derogatory term for those who oppose a public project they find unappealing. I'm not sure if the residents don't want the jail in their back yards, or they just don't want the jail to be set grandly on the waterfront with an expensive view, like Liberty Harbor.
In an effort to check into the origin of eminent domain in Georgia, I traced the courthouse deed back to this historical note: The Constitution of 1777 provided that "A court-house and jail shall be erected at public expense in each county." No one knows if that was ever implemented because we went to war with Great Britain. However, in 1791, the state legislature enacted a law allowing commissioners to designate a site for a Glynn County courthouse and oversee its construction. There is no record of its having ever been built.
It is there, though. I pass it almost daily. And the commissioners can apparently use eminent domain; it sounds a bit sketchy, but the law is on record and gives them the right. They are the government and have have declared an edict. It is an announcement, not a discussion. On the radio, callers want a vote on the matter. They want to sweep the commissioners out of office.
They can't do that. Commissioners serve staggered terms, so if you vote someone off the board, there are still four more to teach the new one the old way to "handle" the public. The only recourse is to recall them all.
As they say, there oughta be a law - and there probably is.