DARIEN – Hard-fought battles about discrimination raised by residents and descendants of Georgia’s only intact Saltwater Geechee community against McIntosh County ended last year with a settlement that these Black residents hoped would end years of neglect in which the county and state provided fewer services to their historic enclave than white areas of the county.

The victory could be moot this week if McIntosh County commissioners vote on zoning changes for the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island that were created with input from relatively new white property owners rather than the Black residents. The proposals erase the wording of the county code meant to preserve the integrity of the unique community and add measures that could increase property taxes. 

Residents and their allies are planning a silent protest on Monday afternoon as county commissioners meet to discuss the changes before an expected vote on Tuesday. Last week, approximately 200 people appeared at the separate zoning commission meeting to oppose the new standards described by the McIntosh county manager as good for the community, despite excluding them from the draft discussions.

“The proposed amendments to the Hogg Hammock zoning regulations are in the best interest of the residents of Hogg Hammock and all of the citizens of McIntosh County. These regulations provide the best protection that any county in Georgia can provide to similarly situated communities,” Patrick Zoucks, the county manager, said in a statement published online by the Darien News last week.

Hogg Hummock, a 427-acre community on an island the size of Manhattan, was founded by people emancipated from Sapelo Island’s former plantations. For decades the families have struggled to preserve their heritage amid an indifferent county and state government and between 30-50 people currently call the community home. McIntosh’s proposed zoning changes delete reference to Hogg Hummock’s “unique needs in regard to its historic resources, traditional patterns of development, threat from land speculators and housing forms” that are part of 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. The changes would likely increase property taxes for the majority Black homeowners who had, as part of their legal settlement, won concessions from the county to reverse past tax increases while not receiving basic services like a fire-fighting infrastructure, sanitation and emergency medical services.

The zoning changes come amid a larger county-led effort to rethink tax assessments and as new wealthier property owners widen their footprint on Sapelo. Several island residents have built residences that violate current zoning codes, according to county tax assessments. Zoucks said in his statement that the zoning changes were not racial in nature and cited an unnamed Black resident of Sapelo who had complained about alleged violations to current zoning codes by one of his Black neighbors as evidence that change was needed. See previous reporting by The Current here.

But no Sapelo descendant could name a member of the community who had been asked by the county to draft the changes under consideration such as allowing a marina to be built on the island and prohibiting livestock from Hogg Hummock. Many Black property owners keep animals. They don’t have pleasure boats that need a marina. 

It remains unclear who decided to remove the historic preservation language in current zoning, according to Josiah “Jazz” Watts, a community leader who also works on environmental justice issues for the environmental group 100 Miles. 

‘It’s not unusual for a body like the county commissioners to ignore people like us. What’s more frustrating is that they don’t even consider us.’

Josiah ‘Jazz’ Watts

Watts says the disdain embedded in the county manager statement typifies the attitude the county has taken towards its residents for decades. “It’s not unusual for a body like the county commissioners to ignore people like us. What’s more frustrating is that they don’t even consider us.” McIntosh County has approximately 11,000 residents, 65% of whom are white. 

Zoucks said the proposed changes have been part of a ten-year process during which the county “endured” years of litigation with Hogg Hummock.

Last Thursday dozens of residents and their supporters gave hours of emotional testimony to the zoning board and begged officials to go back to the drawing board and involve the community in the planning. Rather than taking 45 days to consider the changes, as the law allows, the zoning board members hastily passed some small amendments to the code and sent the document to the county commissioners.

Watts and other Gullah Geechee Georgians spent the weekend working to keep the pressure campaign going. On Monday, county commissioners have a working meeting to consider the zoning changes and other agenda items to be included in their monthly meeting scheduled for Tuesday. The Sapelo community and their lawyers are now asking the commissioners to delay the vote and take 90 days to consider the ramifications of the proposed changes.

Margaret Coker is editor-in-chief of The Current GA. She started her two-decade career in journalism at Cox Newspapers before going to work at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In that time...