CCA Georgia Members as many of you may already know there is a House Bill in the works that will greatly affect our Salt Marshes that we all cherish in Coastal Georgia. CCA Georgia believes that the marshes of Georgia should remain a public resource, and not be owned by private entities. We support the rights of Georgia’s anglers to fish the saltwater marshes of Georgia. Therefore, we are endorsing the Georgia Conservancy’s position on this house bill. Please reach out to your local representatives and tell them you do not support HB 370. Please use the link below to find out your Representative and their contact information.

Determining Ownership of Salt Marsh – House Bill 370

A substitute to House Bill 370, sponsored by Rep. Matt Reeves (R-99), was introduced this week in the House Judiciary Committee and narrowly passed the committee with a vote of 6-5. As was the case with the previous version of House Bill 370, this substitute measure seeks to alter the process of determining the private title of coastal salt marsh in Georgia by way of a crown grant or state grant. The new measure provides greater details into what this proposed process would look like, and in doing so, further cements our position that House Bill 370 is a bad bill and one that could be detrimental to our state’s celebrated coastal marsh resources.d

The vast majority of Georgia’s nearly 400,000 acres of salt marsh are owned by the State of Georgia and are protected by the Georgia Coastal Marshlands Protection Act (CMPA). The CMPA has provided Georgia with consistent and “constant political and regulatory enforcement of marsh protection measures” for nearly 55 years. Thanks to this enduring legislation, Georgia’s expansive network of salt marsh is intact and remains one of the most protected ecosystems on the eastern seaboard.

House Bill 370 would allow for private parties who claim ownership of salt marsh through a centuries-old crown grant or state grant to present their evidence via abstract of title, to the State Properties Commission. Under HB 370, if the State Properties Commission fails to issue a determination within 180 days, then it is deemed an admission by the State that the petitioner has a clear title, and the salt marsh in question would no longer belong to the State of Georgia and the public.

House Bill 370 presents several concerning issues relating to the continued protection of Georgia’s salt marsh ecosystem. Of these, the Georgia Conservancy sees some key issues of concern:

• Salt marshes are held by the State pursuant to the common law public trust doctrine. This legislation has the potential to disrupt a pillar of protection for these valuable coastlands by shifting the responsibility for proving ownership from private parties to the State Properties Commission and establishing an incredibly small window (180 days) in which the Commission must do so. This is too short of a time frame to assess property documentation dating back 250 years and before the founding of the United States.

• Under current law, the State Properties Commission must receive legislative approval from the Georgia General Assembly (a public action) for the sales of property owned by the State of Georgia, as well as grants of easement rights on State-owned property. This bill cedes this authority from the Georgia General Assembly to the State Properties Commission, which may not have the resources to handle and administer such determinations. Furthermore, the State Properties Commission was not involved in the drafting of House Bill 370.

• Under House Bill 370, the evidence that the petitioning private party must present to prove ownership is flimsy, at best. The petitioner would only need: (1) to show evidence of the mere “existence” of a crown grant for the property in question, but not proof of the chain of title, only that the title can be traced back 40 years; and (2) that that property has visual evidence of manmade disruption or manipulation. Much of our salt marsh retains the visual scars of decades upon decades of manmade manipulation prior to the CMPA. This does not mean they are not being actively and successfully conserved by the State.

• This bill is framed as a conservation measure, though such properties in question are currently conserved under State law through the CMPA. Marshlands disturbed centuries ago before the 1970 passage of CMPA currently provide excellent ecoservices and wildlife habitat and do not need to be disturbed by private parties for “conservation purposes”. If the State finds restoration necessary within state-owned salt marsh, there is currently an established process through which restoration can be undertaken.

The House Bill 370 substitute passed the House Judiciary Committee in a narrow vote of 6 to 5. It will now move to the House Rules Committee.

The Georgia Conservancy strongly opposes the passage of House Bill 370.