Despite overwhelming opposition from Sapelo Island residents, the McIntosh County Commission on Tuesday approved a rezoning of Hogg Hummock, the only remaining intact Gullah-Geechee community on the coast.
Commissioner Roger Lotson attempted to postpone the vote for 45 days to allow the community to review the proposal, and then tried to reduce to 2,180 the allowable square footage of houses on the island, but both motions failed.
The new zoning allows larger, taller homes in the 427-acre community on Sapelo, where the descendants of enslaved people who worked the island’s plantations have lived for generations. The changes increase house size from 1,400 square feet of heated and cooled space to 3,000 square feet of enclosed space. It increases the allowable height from 1.5 stories to 37 feet tall.
Commissioner William Harrell voted with Lotson on both motions. Voting against the motions were Commissioners Kate Pontello Karwacki and Davis Poole. Chairman David Stevens broke the tie on both motions.
Hogg Hummock residents fear the changes will attract wealthy investors, driving up property values and taxes, and ultimately drive out the descendants.
“A few millionaires will come and build a 3,000-square-foot home,” Lotson said. “Again … at the expense of us, at the expense of our reputation, at the expense of our history, and our culture.”
After the vote and after some of the more than 150 people in attendance left, Poole read a statement defending the zoning changes.
“We hope to improve the situation for Gullah Geechee people,” he said in part. “Keep in mind that not a single acre was left to a non-descendant in Hog Hammock. All this land was owned by Gullah Geechee. Over the years ownership in Hog Hammock has taken a different turn. Only the heirs can sell their original property today, roughly 50% of the land is owned by the descendants and 50% of the land is owned by non-descendants. Again, we must by law treat everyone equally. I believe this change tonight is resulting in square footage move to 3,000 square feet is a modest compromise to meet both ends and it’s enforceable.”
Stevens was also adamant that the county had allowed for sufficient community input, though there was no county-sponsored public meeting about the zoning until last week. He referenced a community meeting organized by nonprofits in 2021 that some county officials attended, suggesting that was the community’s opportunity to participate.
“The two biggest complaints I’ve heard are maximum square footage and not having any public input,” Stevens said. “I’ve asked numerous people who’ve expressed their concern to me about the maximum square footage, ‘what is your number?’ No one was willing to give me that number.”
After the meeting, community members and advocates pushed back again Stevens’ and Poole’s statements.
Josiah “Jazz” Watts, a community leader who also works on environmental justice issues for the environmental group One Hundred Miles, said Stevens’ statement was “inaccurate.” The community was waiting for feedback that never came, he said.
“We asked them questions about zoning ordinances and regulations and said, ‘Look, we know we’ve had these meetings, we know what we want, we want to make sure that we are included in our own zoning. And they said, ‘Okay, well, you know, we will further this conversation and get together and, meet in order to together talk about this.’ That never happened.
Watts said One Hundred Miles is collecting signatures on a petition with the goal of having a referendum on the issue.
Crystal McElrath, Senior Supervising Attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center was taken aback by Poole’s and Stevens’ statements.
“What I saw in there was heartbreaking,” she said. “We knew there were three commissioners who would pass this amendment. What we didn’t know is that those of us who stayed till the end would listen to this insulting, even gaslighting commentary about land ownership on Sapelo.
“These are families who have been forced to swap their land, families who had dozens of acres on Raccoon Bluff, told we’re taking that and we’re giving you one acre here on Hogg Hummock. Still living descendants remember being three years old, and (their families) being forced to sign over their land or being forced to sign over their land in order for their mother to receive health care, or transportation off the island to get health care, medical treatment.”
McElrath noted they have 30 days to file a legal challenge to the zoning amendment.
“We’re going to partner with One Hundred Miles and we’ll be lockstep with this community,” she said.
On Monday the sheriff, clerk of court, county commissioners and the county attorney were informed that the county’s meetings were in violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act because they would not allow citizens or the media to record or photograph them. That changed somewhat on Tuesday. While credentialed media was allowed to bring in only cell phones to record the county commission meeting, the general public was denied this access, continuing the county’s violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Reporters with sound and video equipment and larger still cameras equipment were not allowed to bring those devices into the meeting room.