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Pristine Island Awaits Upscale Buyers

On a small barrier island in the Crooked River Estuary off Georgia's coast, developer Chip Drury is toiling on a $4 billion mixed-use project that has already absorbed more than five years of his life before the first structure has been built.

The planned Laurel Island development spans 2,000 acres and would create two villages, Oxley and Sea Horse, with mixed-use projects, including about 70,000 sq. ft. of commercial space.

Drury is offering 55 single-family founders' lots starting at $700,000 in Phase I, and about 750 residential units in all, including lower-priced flats and townhomes.

“Laurel Island is a very old, historic place. It was a major rice plantation — they stopped rice production around 1910,” explains Drury, CEO of Atlanta-based Tidewater Plantations. The island sits on a bluff with a forest of oak, magnolia and black cherry trees.

Drury bought the land from his father in 2000, and has struggled to coax the ambitious plan from concept to reality. He cleared a swath of the island, located south of Savannah near famed Jekyll Island, where industrial barons like Andrew Carnegie once summered. But no luminaries summered on the marshes of Laurel Island, or on neighboring Raccoon Key, which Drury renamed Margaret's Key.

A 1,760-acre development is planned for Margaret's Key, linked to Laurel Island by a 100-foot causeway. The causeway has no road, and the key can be reached only by boat. The Ocean Beach Club resort would include a 10-room inn and 10 beachfront cottages, says David Lang, Tidewater's chief operating officer.

Deutsche Bank provided a $37 million loan for Phase I of the Laurel Island project, Lang says. The company had planned to borrow $200 million for the first two phases and raise capital through property sales. Lang estimates development costs at $450 million. The value at build-out could reach $4 billion, Drury says.

The grand plan has several elements. “We have 50 acres on a little piece called Drizzle Bluff,” says Lang. It occupies 1,500 linear feet along the Crooked River on the mainland, where Tidewater plans to dry-stack boats. A 450-slip marina is planned on Laurel Island. Altogether, Drury has proposed developing 4,000 acres, including the 2,000 on Laurel Island.

Golf-like carts would whisk residents to shops or restaurants to avoid auto pollution. Mackinac Island in Michigan and Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay also shun cars.

Drury surveyed 8,000 island trees to save as many as possible, calling them “the very essence of the place.”

He shopped his concept in Europe, where the strong euro makes U.S. property a bargain. Two groups of Germans flew to Georgia, but by mid-May 2008 no lots had been sold. “We're putting together marketing plans,” states Drury.

But Ken Kessler, planning director for nearby Kingsland, Ga. says the lots may be too pricey for the area. “There's a very slender market,” for high-end lots. “I know of some other places around here where the lots are priced in that range. They're not going either.”

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