Update: This article was updated Sept. 28, 2023 with the 2022 estimate for McIntosh’s population and the February count of registered voters. The article was also corrected to indicate voter registration status can be checked at the Georgia Secretary of State’s web site.

Community groups in McIntosh County have organized a petition to give voters a chance to repeal a controversial zoning change on Sapelo Island’s Hogg Hummock. The area is inhabited by descendants of formerly enslaved West Africans and is the last Saltwater/Gullah Geechee community on a Georgia barrier island. Residents fear the zoning change, which allows bigger, taller houses, will force out these descendents in favor of wealthy developers. ​

Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society SICARS, the Hog Hammock Community Foundation, Saving our Legacy Ourself (SOLO), and One Hundred Miles joined as “Keep Sapelo Geechee” to launch the petition drive, with details of how to sign on its website.

“It’s difficult when you have to fight against something people who are supposed to represent you have done,” said Josiah “Jazz” Watts, a community leader who also works on environmental justice issues for One Hundred Miles. 

The groups are employing the Home Rule provision of the Georgia Constitution, which was used successfully in 2022 in Camden County to repeal the county’s decision to purchase land for its spaceport, quashing that project. The provision for counties allows that “repeals of such local acts or ordinances, resolutions, or regulations … may be initiated by a petition filed with the judge of the probate court of the county containing, … in cases of counties with a population of more than 5,000 but not more than 50,000, at least 20 percent of the electors registered to vote in the last general election.”

In the Camden case, the March 8, 2022 referendum produced a decisive rejection of the county’s decision to develop the spaceport. Camden County challenged the petition and the referendum in court, but ultimately the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the vote as constitutionally authorized.

Modeling their efforts on Camden’s, organizers in Atlanta have mounted a petition drive seeking a referendum on “Cop City,” the controversial police and firefighter training center planned for a large urban forest in DeKalb County. Activists say they have collected more than 116,000 signatures.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the McIntosh County population was 11,180 in 2022. The Georgia Secretary of State reports the county had 10,337 registered voters as of February. To get to the required 20% with breathing room for duplicates or otherwise rejected signatures, Keep Sapelo Geechee is aiming for 2,200 signatures. Only voters registered in McIntosh County are eligible to sign and they must indicate a physical address that matches their voter registration. Signatures cannot be accepted electronically, but forms can be downloaded from the site and mailed to organizers. Voter registration status can be checked at the Georgia Secretary of State’s web site.

Organizers are aiming to collect the enough signatures over the next three months to force a referendum during a special election in March, 2024.

The effort faced a setback Wednesday when organizers learned that they were denied the use of the Sapelo Community Center for an upcoming meeting. Watts fears the county’s denial was issued as a punishment for the groups’ outspoken opposition to the new zoning.

“Now we are being denied usage of the Center,” Watts wrote in a text. “The same center they lauded that is supposed to be for the community. I feel that this is retaliation.” 

Commissioner Roger Lotson, who opposed the rezoning and whose district includes Hogg Hummock, said that’s not the case, though he understands the community seeing it that way.

In a telephone interview with The Current, Lotson explained that county recently spent more than $300,000 to renovate the community center, but does not have a cleaning or maintenance service in place to care for it. (Funding for the renovation came from a federal grant, Watts noted.)

“We got complaints that the building was was not clean when other people are using it. But those who do use it, they’re not necessarily cleaning up behind themselves,” Lotson said. “So the county made a decision that okay, until we can get someone to be on the ground supervising it that we’re going to limit the use of the building only to government entities.”

Over the summer, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner, which has a large presence on the island, rejected a plan for his agency to care for the building, Lotson said. County Manager Patrick Zoucks announced Sept. 21 that the county is preparing a Request for Proposals to operate the center. The County Commission is expected discuss the RFP at its Oct. 5 meeting.

The center remains open to government entities, Lotson said, leaving community groups the option to partner with a state or local government agency to use the building.

Mary Landers is a reporter for The Current in Coastal Georgia with more than two decades of experience focusing on the environment. Contact her at mary.landers@thecurrentga.org She covered climate and...