Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News
‘A few millionaires will come and build’: County board rezones Sapelo Island's Gullah Geechee area
Officials in Coastal Georgia's McIntosh County voted Tuesday night to rezone the historic Sapelo Island settlement of Hogg Hummock, one of the nation's last intact communities of Gullah Geechee descendants of enslaved West Africans who worked island plantations along the Atlantic Ocean.
By a 3-2 vote, the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners more than doubled the maximum size of homes that can be legally built on Hogg Hummock — from 1,400 square feet to 3,000 — raising concerns among community members that the rezoning would drive up property values and taxes, effectively pricing out Black property owners from their native land.
“I don't believe it is right — I know it's not right,” said Brunswick resident Sharon Banks, who grew up on Hogg Hummock and whose parents continue to live in the community of some few dozen residents. “It's taking away the true beauty of Sapelo Island. Sapelo is a Gullah Geechee place. It's a very unique place, and should not be changed.”
McIntosh County Chairman David Stevens cast the tie-breaking vote, joining two other white commissioners — Kate Karwacki and Davis Poole — in the rezoning, which he defended as having been unfairly maligned by “fake news.”
“It was never my personal intent to allow 5-, 10-, 15-, or 20,000-square-foot homes being built on Sapelo Island,” Stevens said, seemingly referring to an earlier and more lax draft version of the rezoning proposal, which had been criticized by some, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, as ambiguous. “I would have not supported that if that was the case.”
Stevens went on to seemingly blame Gullah Geechee people on Sapelo Island for the loss of their own property and culture, and told them to “quit selling your land.”
He did not note that the county faced a recent federal lawsuit by Sapelo Island landowners and residents, who had alleged that the county was providing inadequate services on the island despite charging high property taxes. The case was settled last year, resulting in a pledge to improve emergency response and road maintenance, and a temporary freeze of some residents' property tax assessments.
Stevens was accompanied by law enforcement officers as he left the courthouse, despite there being no threats made to his safety during the meeting by any of the attendees, the majority of whom were Black.
Voting against the rezoning proposal were William Harrell and Roger Lotson, who is the commission's only Black member, and whose district includes Sapelo Island.
“A few millionaires will come and build 3,000-square-foot homes, again — as I said yesterday — at the expense of us, at the expense of our reputation, at the expense of our history and our culture.”
Lotson added that, beyond displacing Gullah Geechee landowners, the measure would cost McIntosh County taxpayers an “unknown amount of money” for the additional public services demanded by newcomers, and for the cost of potential litigation challenging the rezoning.
“I see lawyers on the front row, waiting,” he quipped.
Indeed, sitting there was Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Crystal McElrath, who on Monday sent a letter to commissioners in which she wrote that the county's rezoning process had violated the Constitution.
She wrote that the 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.”
McIntosh County resident Peter Campbell told GPB after the meeting that he worries Hogg Hummock will become too expensive for his children, who are Sapelo Island descendants.
“We gotta get rich,” he said with a laugh. “That's all I can think about, is if they don't get financially stable, they won't be on Sapelo.”
He added that he thinks the value of even a half-acre of land “probably doubled today,” saying that Sapelo Island property is “going to be more sought-after, and it's going to encourage people to sell more and the historic community is going to shrink.”