At a packed meeting in Darien Thursday, officials failed to answer questions about the origin of a controversial zoning rewrite for the historic Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo. But the Gullah Geechee people who call the island their ancestral home know it didn’t come from them. They were excluded from the planning, they say.
“We feel now that we didn’t have the opportunity to address what you’re presenting,” said Ronald Johnson, board president of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society and the first speaker at Thursday’s hearing of the McIntosh County Planning and Zoning Commission.
Reginald Hall, another Gullah Geechee descendant, put it in stronger terms.
“We want to be clear,” he said, when he got his three minutes to speak. “This is a meeting of destruction. We have been advised we’re looking at genocide.”
The proposed zoning changes delete reference to Hog Hammock’s “unique needs in regard to its historic resources, traditional patterns of development, threat from land speculators and housing forms” in the current zoning. They would also allow larger houses to be built and set a minimum size that’s larger than some of the traditional cottages.
In more than two hours of emotional testimony, residents and supporters begged the county to go back to the drawing board and involve the community in the planning. None of the 200 or so people squeezed into the courtroom spoke in favor of the zoning changes.
Hogg Hummock, or Hog Hammock as it’s also written, is the last surviving Gullah Geechee community on the coast. Its 427 acres are populated with descendants of enslaved people brought to Sapelo in the 1800s. Many, like JR Grovner, don’t want bigger houses there and are suspicious of the county’s intentions.
“This is just another way for the county to up our taxes,” he said. “If you want to build bigger houses, go to Sea Island or St. Simons that’s all I got to say. “
Advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations spoke out against the zoning, too, the latter because of the island’s connection to Islam. Bilali Muhammad, an Islamic scholar from West Africa, was enslaved on Sapelo, and many of Hog Hummock’s Gullah Geechee trace their family tree back to him.
“The root of American Islam runs through Sapelo,” said Megan Gordon of CAIR.
Miriam Gutman of the Southern Poverty Law Center spoke on flaws she saw in the zoning process.
“An ordinance must have a text amendment,” she said. “That’s not done here. It must have what language was added or replaced. That’s not done here.”
Her colleague Crystal McElrath said the new rules would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
While the zoning board was allowed to take up to 45 days to make its recommendation to the county commission, it chose to take only two days. The commission meets Monday for its workshop and Tuesday for its regular meeting.
McIntosh passed its comprehensive zoning plan for the rest of the county in July. It hired the Coastal Regional Commission for that effort as well as for the rezoning of Hogg Hummock, county officials indicated at Thursday’s hearing.
But at least one Hogg Hummock property owner was involved. County correspondence that the nonprofit One Hundred Miles obtained through an open records request and shared with The Current indicate Bill Hodges, an engineer from St. Simons who owns a house in Hogg Hummock, helped craft the zoning changes. On July 14 he sent McIntosh County Manager Patrick Zoucks and County Attorney Ad Poppell a “first draft of the ordinance we discussed for Sapelo Island.”
Reached by phone Friday, Hodges said he volunteered his services to the county and reviewed and edited documents but didn’t create them.
One Hundred Miles Justice Strategist Jazz Watts, a Hogg Hummock descendant, wants more transparency in the process.
“Where did they get this? I mean, the fact that they don’t know – and I know they’re just the planning and zoning board – but you would think that they would say, Okay, well, who wrote this? Did the commissioners write this, did CRC write this? What are we looking at? Who are the authors? And that’s my biggest thing, was a community involved with this at all?”
The executive director of the Coastal Regional Commission, Allen Burns, did not respond to requests for comment Friday. Nor did McIntosh County Attorney Ad Poppell or County Manager Patrick Zoucks. A statement from Zoucks about the plan’s goals to address dwelling sizes and enforce zoning was posted on Sept. 7 in the Darien News before the meeting. The statement mentioned the lengthy litigation over county services to taxpayers on the island. (Link to full statement.)
Changes, then a vote
On Thursday after the hearing, the three zoning board members took about half an hour to pencil in changes to the proposal before voting unanimously to recommend it to the county commission for approval. While they adjusted some of the regulations in response to the public comment, they did not discuss restoring the original wording of the purpose and intent of the Hog Hammock District.
That statement begins: “The purpose of this district is to allow continued use and activities of the community of Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island. The community has unique needs in regards to its historic resources, traditional patterns of development, threat from land speculators and housing forms.”
Only three board members were present Thursday: Chair Jamie Brenton, David DeLoach, and Jay Duncan. William Hill and Frank Lunsford did not attend.
The board conducted its post-hearing discussion without microphones, making it difficult for all but a few attendees standing near their table to hear the changes that will be presented to the county commission Monday.
County Commissioner Roger Lotson, who represents Sapelo, urged attendees to return on Monday for the commission work session at 5 p.m. at the McIntosh County Courthouse in Darien and also for the regular county commission meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday when the commission is scheduled to vote on the zoning.