Update: A copy of the proposed zoning proposal for the Hog Hammock district was provided to The Current Tuesday at 11:10 a.m. Here’s a link to the 14-page document that will be voted on after 5 p.m. today by the McIntosh County Commission.
A zoning proposal for Hogg Hammock remains on the fast track to allow larger, taller homes in the historic Gullah-Geechee community after a McIntosh County Commission workshop meeting Monday evening.
The commission is scheduled to vote on the controversial zoning plan at its 5 p.m. Tuesday meeting.
About 150 people packed the McIntosh County Courthouse Monday, many of them back just four days after a heated, nearly three-hour-long hearing of the county zoning board Thursday on the same matter. At that hearing, more than 30 people spoke out against the proposed changes. None spoke in favor.
After incorporating changes commission Chairman David Stevens made at Monday’s meeting, the Hogg Hummock zoning proposal allows houses of up to 37 feet tall with 3,000 square feet enclosed space. The current zoning allows houses of up to 1.5 stories tall with 1,400 square feet of heated and cooled space.
On top of a new intent statement that references the island’s limited water and sanitary sewer facilities, as well as encourages a healthy environment for “several different types of dwellings,” Stevens added back the original purpose and intent statement that reads:
“The intent 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 regard to its historic resources, traditional patterns of development, threat from land speculators and housing forms. It is the intent of the district to reserve this area for low intensity residential and cottage industry uses which are environmentally sound and will not contribute to land value increases which could force removal of the indigenous population.”
Commissioner Roger Lotson, who represents Sapelo, urged his colleagues to postpone their scheduled vote on the proposal Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of eyes on this proposal, both within the state and throughout the nation,” Lotson said. “And therefore we must make sure that we do it right. If we do it wrong it’s going to bring a black eye to McIntosh County … I fear that negative press might bring some damage to our reputation and may frighten off some potential business that may come to McIntosh County.”
Advocates including those attending the meeting from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Southern Poverty Law Center have pointed out procedural and other missteps in the process that could lead to a lawsuit against the county.
“The County’s proposal continues to raise serious due process and equal protection concerns by excluding the historically and culturally important Gullah-Geechee community on Sapelo Island from meaningful participation in the passage of the Hogg Hummock Zoning District amendments, which singularly poses an existential threat to that community,” Southern Poverty Law Center Senior Supervising Attorney Crystal McElrath wrote in a letter to the county commission Monday.
Lotson said he’s worried about a lawsuit, but also what the process is telling some residents.
“I’m concerned that the message to my constituents is that their voices are not heard or even considered.”
Residents of Georgia’s only intact Saltwater Geechee community fear larger house sizes will attract investors, driving up property values and taxes, and ultimately driving out the descendants of enslaved people who once worked the island’s plantations.
Chairman Stevens said he was considering larger homes because “a number of people” told him 1,400 square feet was too small.
“I’ve heard those who’ve said, I cannot have my kids and grandkids over here to stay with me without going down the street and renting a place,” Stevens said.
Lotson countered that long-time residents have lived with the 1400-square-foot rule since 1995 and managed to have relatives visit. He estimates a 3,000 square foot home would cost at least $1 million to build on the island. Allowing that size will drive out the Black residents who consider Hogg Hummock their ancestral home.
“My brother, I think he’s in here somewhere, has an expression: You don’t get rid of ‘been here’ for ‘just came’,” Lotson said.
The commission did not accept public comment Monday. No public comment is expected Tuesday either. That’s because citizens must request in advance to be on the agenda. But the deadline to make that request was the day before Thursday’s hearing at which the zoning proposal was first aired and adjusted. The proposal was adjusted further on Monday.
Changes made to the proposed zoning were not been relayed to the public in writing until after 11:15 a.m. Tuesday before the vote.
WORK SESSION RECORDING
Here’s the link to a raw recording of the Monday McIntosh County Commission work session. It was provided by the county attorney on Monday night. The discussion of Hogg Hummock rezoning comes at 11:27 in the recording. The speakers are not named, but they are primarily Chairman Stevens, and Dist. 3 member Roger Lotson.
Earlier in the day, the sheriff, clerk of court, county commissioners and the county attorney were informed that the meetings are in violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act because they would not allow citizens or the media to record or photograph the meeting. A letter on behalf of The Current from the UGA first amendment clinic was delivered by email and hand delivered to officials. County Attorney Ad Poppell and County Commission Chair David Stevens said the decision lies with Sheriff Stephen Jessup who controls access to the courthouse, where the meetings are held. Poppell said the courthouse is the only place big enough to hold the meetings. A complaint has been filed with the attorney general’s staff, and Poppell was sent a letter from the state attorney general before the meeting.
As attendees streamed into the building on a rainy Monday evening, Josiah “Jazz” Watts, a community leader who also works on environmental justice issues for the environmental group One Hundred Miles and his colleague Susan Inman handed out stickers that read “Keep Sapelo Geechee.”
“This is a battle for the soul and existence of the Gullah-Geechee community on Sapelo Island,” Watts said.
The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.