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Time running short on controversial coastal marshland ownership bill as Crossover Day looms

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Time running short on controversial coastal marshland ownership bill as Crossover Day looms

Feb 26, 2024 | 6:20 pm ET
By Chaya Tong
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Time running short on controversial coastal marshland ownership bill as Crossover Day looms
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Environmentalists warn that leaving Georgia’s saltmarshes at the mercy of private interests will endanger a vital part of the state’s ecosystem, now protected by the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Controversial legislation that would give Georgia landowners an easier path to claim part of the state’s coastal marsh as their own is up against the ticking clock of this year’s impending Crossover Day February 29, a key deadline for a bill to clear one of the state Legislature’s chambers. 

House Bill 370, sponsored by five Republican legislators and one Democrat, would make it easier to prove private ownership of the coastal marshlands issued to Georgia settlers as pre-Revolutionary war land grants by the King of England. Often dating back more than 250 years ago, these so-called “crown grants” allowed early settlers to keep and cultivate the land owned by the monarchy in exchange for various agreements or as a reward. The state of Georgia still honors “crown grants,” allowing landowners who can prove they have met the original grant’s stipulations continuously since its inception to keep the land. If not, the land belongs to the state.

Environmentalists warn that leaving Georgia’s saltmarshes at the mercy of private interests will endanger a vital part of the state’s ecosystem, now protected by the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970.

Crown grant land makes up about 10% or less of Georgia’s coastal marshlands with the rest of the land owned and protected by the state of Georgia. The legislation would allow landowners who agree to set aside their marshland for conservation to sell mitigation credits to private developers who want to balance out damage to wetlands in other areas. Instead of going through the state attorney general’s office as current crown grant claims do, cases would go through the State Properties Commission under HB 370. If the commission takes more than nine months to determine the case, the landowner making the claim would get to keep the land.  

Earlier this month, the house judiciary committee voted to approve HB 370, sending it to the full House, where it has yet to come up for a vote. The bill would need to make it through the House before the end of the month to avoid the fate the proposal suffered in 2022 and 2023, where it failed to earn a vote on the House floor. 

Supporters of the proposal say that the bill provides incentives for restoration, non-reversible conservation easements to protect the marshland and added protection of the maritime forest off the coast of Georgia. Dr. Jerry Williams, who purchased marshland in 2014 and 2016, has been fighting for his crown grant land for over four years and has strongly advocated for this year’s legislation.

“It’s about incentivizing these private landowners to do the right thing, restore the marsh and then put it on an irrevocable easement where it can never be disturbed,” Williams said. 

Supporters argue that the bill will allow for increased conservation.

“The bill restricts the 10% or less of the coastal marshlands in Georgia that are private, to conservation use only,” Duluth Republican Rep. Matt Reeves, the bill’s lead sponsors, said in a statement to the Recorder. “It also allows them to pursue conservation restoration mitigation to return the disturbed marshlands to their pre-colonial natural state.”

But opposition to the bill also runs strong with environmental groups like the coastal nonprofit One Hundred Miles, which is advocating against HB 370 in the hopes that it will stall in the House before the Senate can consider it this legislative session. President and CEO of One Hundred Miles Megan Desrosiers said that the bill does not include any scientific benchmark to prove that what the landowner is doing is better for the environment than the conservation work the state already has in place.

“It’s a bill that lets private people take work that has been done by the state and either undermine it or take credit for it so that they can get paid for whatever conservation or restoration they claimed to be doing,” she said.

Mike Worley, president and CEO of Georgia Wildlife Federation, the state’s oldest and largest member supported conservationist group, said the marshlands have been highly functional and have gone undisturbed for the last 100 or more years. 

“We’re not sure that it’s a fair exchange to allow someone to destroy marshlands elsewhere and claim restoration of these marshes that are already working well,” Worley said. 

With the exception of public navigable waters, land claimed by an individual under the bill could also potentially exclude hunters and anglers who traditionally have had access to it, he added. 

Williams says that the state needs to adopt a simpler approach to marsh land ownership, explaining that it could spend less money on the attorney general’s legal fees fighting individuals over land rights if it created an alternative process for individuals to stake claims. 

“Your own government is being weaponized against you. And it’s, you know, we need to come up with a simpler, more streamlined way to pursue this,” he said. “I’m having to fight my own government who sends me a property tax bill every year to prove that I own the property that I have a title policy for.” 

Mark Woodall, legislative committee chair of the Georgia Sierra Club, and others opposing the bill say that it flips the burden of proof onto the state, tasking it with proving individual’s claims to the marshland. Being able to prove a crown land grant takes copious amounts of archival work, especially for a deed that is hundreds of years old. 

“The only way you can really do that is to go to the archive and look at the maps, so the burden of proof rightfully is on the petitioner who is trying to prove he’s got a claim in this position and this [bill] will just completely turn that around,” Woodall said. 

There’s not a market if the state owns the salt marsh,” Desrosiers said. “There’s only a market if there is an opportunity for private individuals to take ownership of the salt marsh.”