– Sept. 27, 2023 –

Good morning. Successful ideas have a way of spreading. We’re looking at a couple examples today. First we see McIntosh County voters taking a page from Camden and collecting signatures to force a referendum, this time to repeal the recent rezoning of Hogg Hummock on Sapelo Island. Then there’s the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where supporters are moving forward to make the refuge the 26th place in the U.S. designated as a World Heritage Site.

Sapelo residents petition for zoning repeal

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 together 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.”

The McIntosh County population is about 14,000, with 10,222 registered voters. 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 can be downloaded from the site and mailed to organizers. Voter registration status can be checked at the Georgia Attorney General’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.

Credit: Robin Kemp/The Current

World Heritage Site bid moves forward

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is on track to get the world-wide recognition supporters of the swamp say it deserves, as The Current’s Mary Landers reports. Early this week the refuge got the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of the Interior to prepare a draft nomination for World Heritage Site status from the United Nations.

The refuge and its partner in seeking the designation, the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park, are raising money to prepare the formal nomination package by September 2024 so the National Parks Service can put forward the nomination in February 2025.

If successful, the refuge would join other iconic U.S. natural wonders already designated as World Heritage Sites including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the Everglades. Some conservative media outlets have warned that the status would allow foreign meddling in the management of the refuge, a suggestion supporters dismissed.

“The way I like to put it is, it’s sort of like getting a five-star review in Travelocity, right?” Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Manager Michael Lusk said. “It’s like the United Nations saying this is an outstanding place in the world. We recognize it as that. But that does not give them any control. It does not give them any management.”

Blow ups, barracks and houses of peat help form the mosaic that the Okefenokee presents from overhead. Credit: Justin Taylor

Ike swims free

Hundreds of supporters gathered at Tybee’s North Beach on Saturday to
witness the release into the Atlantic Ocean of Ike, and three year-old loggerhead sea turtle.

Ike lived at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center since his rescue in 2020 when center staffers plucked him from his Tybee nest as a tiny straggler too weak to climb out on his own. During his tenure at the center he graduated to a newly built 4,500 gallon tank, growing into a robust adolescent while serving as the center’s “marine debris ambassador.”

In that role he helped educate more than 300,000 students and visitors at the Center. His successor, Westie, a straggler rescued from Ossabaw Island, is the new ambassador.

Georgia’s nesting sea turtles had a productive year, with 3,432 nests recorded on the state’s beaches. More than 152,000 hatchlings have emerged, and they’re still hatching. The last recorded hatch was Tuesday on Sea Island.

Tybee Island Marine Science Center staffers carry Ike into the surf. Credit: Casey Jones

Of note:

A second nest belonging to the invasive yellow-legged hornet has been found and destroyed on Wilmington Island near Savannah. Officials suspect the hornets entered via the port, as GPB’s Benjamin Payne reports.

• Earlier this month the Chatham County Commisison accepted a grant of $3 million from the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program to help the county purchase the 400-acre Green Island, which is southwest of Skidaway. The grant requires the county to kick in a $3 million match. Along with recreational opportunities, the island, which is only accessible by boat, is important for protecting a drinking water recharge zone.

• The Department of Commerce and NOAA last week announced plans to spend $82 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to help protect North Atlantic right whales. The funding will support both existing technologies, such as underwater devices to listen for whales, as well as the development of new technology, such as the use of high-resolution satellite information. Fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales exist. A NOAA proposal to expand a speed limit to include vessels that are 35-65 feet long has met with resistance from some maritime industries and their Congressional supporters including U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who has called instead for technological fixes.

If you have feedback, questions, concerns, or just like what you see, let us know at thecurrentga@gmail.com.

Okefenokee on track to World Heritage Site status

After years on the tentative list the Okefenokee could join the Grand Canyon and the Everglades as a World Heritage Site

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McIntosh officials respond to complaints of open meetings violations, cite safety concerns

Over the last two weeks, the county has worked to tamp down perceptions that they have violated Georgia law about public meetings amid community outrage and the potential of further lawsuits.

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Second yellow-legged hornet nest found near Savannah, after species ‘very likely’ entered via port

Another nest of yellow-legged hornets was identified Friday on Wilmington Island, following the nation’s first sighting of the invasive species there in August.

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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...