State House Committee Approves Coastal Marshland Ownership Bill

Dave Williams

Thursday, February 1st, 2024

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Legislation that would make it easier for owners of marshland property in Georgia under grants that date back to the 1700s to establish that ownership narrowly cleared a state House committee Tuesday.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 to send House Bill 370 on to the Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full House.

About 10% of the state’s total marshland – more than 36,000 acres – is privately owned through titles that date back to grants from the English king or – later – a Georgia governor.

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 bill would turn over the process of reviewing claims to marshland property to the State Properties Commission.

“This bill streamlines the process and puts some deadlines on it,” Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, the measure’s chief sponsor, said Tuesday.

Reeves pitched the bill to the committee as a way to restore marshland disturbed by rice farming over the years to its natural state. The legislation limits the use of privately owned marshland to conservation purposes.

“For 200 years, rice farms and manmade alterations have not repaired themselves,” Reeves said. “Mother Nature needs help.”

Reeves said providing a faster way to clear up “clouded” titles to privately owned marshland property would allow conservation projects stalled by legal disputes to begin.

While no one spoke in opposition to the bill Tuesday, representatives of environmental groups warned at a previous hearing that the legislation would make the process of clearing title to marshlands so easy it would encourage false claimants to step forward and take advantage of state tax credits.

The version of the bill the committee approved Tuesday would give the State Properties Commission nine months to resolve title disputes. The original bill limited that review to six months, but opponents argued the complex nature of legal disputes dating back centuries requires more time to resolve.

If a dispute is still unresolved after nine months, the case would go to a special master. Any cases not resolved by the special master could be appealed to superior court.