Descendants of enslaved people living on a Georgia island vowed Tuesday to keep fighting after county commissioners voted to double the maximum allowable size of homes in their tiny enclave. Residents fear this will hasten the decline of one of the South’s few surviving Gullah-Geechee communities.
Black residents of the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island and their supporters gathered at a meeting of McIntosh County’s elected commissioners to oppose zoning changes that residents say will favor wealthy buyers and lead to tax increases that will squeeze them could decide to sell their land.
Separately, commissioners voted 3-2 to ease zoning restrictions the county put in place nearly three decades ago with the stated intent of helping Hogg Hummock’s 30 to 50 residents retain their land.
Yolanda Grovner, 54, of Atlanta, said she had long planned to retire on land owned by her father, a native Islander, in Hogg Hummock. She left district court Tuesday night wondering if that would ever happen.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult,” Grovner said. She added: “I think this is their way of driving residents off the island.”
Hogg Hummock is one of the few surviving communities in the South of people known in Georgia as Gullah or Geechee, whose ancestors worked on slave plantations on the island.
Disputes with local government are nothing new for residents and property owners. Dozens successfully appealed huge property tax hikes in 2012, and residents fought the county in federal court for years over basic services like firefighting equipment and trash collection before county officials reached an agreement last year.
A sticker reading “Keep Sapelo Geechee” is displayed on the shirt of George Grovner, a resident of the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island, at Tuesday’s McIntosh County Commissioners meeting in Darien, Georgia.Russ Bynum/AP
“We still argue,” said Maurice Bailey, a Hogg Hummock native whose mother, Cornelia Bailey, was an acclaimed storyteller and one of Sapelo Island’s most prominent voices before her death in 2017. “They won’t do that.” stop. The people who move in here don’t respect us as people. They love our food, they love our culture. But they don’t love us.”
Hogg Hummock’s population has declined in recent decades, and some families have sold their land to outsiders who have built vacation homes. New construction has led to tensions over how large these homes can be.
Commissioners on Tuesday raised the maximum size of a home in Hogg Hummock to 3,000 square feet (278 square meters) of total enclosed area. The previous limit was 1,400 square feet (130 square meters) of heated and air-conditioned space.
Commissioner Davis Poole, who supported easing the size limit, said it would allow for “a modest home in which an entire family can live under one roof.”
“The commissioners are not concerned with destroying the Gullah-Geechee culture or erasing the history of Sapelo,” Poole said. “It’s not about making more money for the district.”
Commission Chairman David Stevens, who said he has been visiting Sapelo Island since the 1980s, blamed Hogg Hummock’s changing landscape on local owners who sold their land.
“I don’t need anyone lecturing me about the culture of Sapelo Island,” Stevens said, adding: “If you don’t want these outsiders to be there, if you don’t want these new houses to be built…then “Don’t sell your land.”
District officials argued that size limits based on heated and cooled spaces proved unenforceable. District Attorney Adam Poppell said more than a dozen homes in Hogg Hummock appeared to be violating the limits, and in some cases homeowners refused to open their doors to inspectors.
McIntosh County Commission Chairman David Stevens (left) speaks at a table alongside fellow commissioners Roger Lotson (center) and Kate Pontello Karwacki (right) at a meeting in Darien, Georgia, on Tuesday.Ross Bynum/AP
Hogg Hummock property owner Richard Banks likened it to the county letting lawbreakers dictate the rules.
“If everyone wants to exceed the speed limit, should we raise the speed limits for all speeders?” Banks said.
Hogg Hummock residents said they were blindsided when the county unveiled its proposed zoning changes Aug. 16. Commissioners approved sweeping zoning changes across McIntosh County in July but left Hogg Hummock alone.
Commissioner Roger Lotson, the only Black member of the county commission, voted against the changes and warned his colleagues that he feared they would end up in court again for rushing through them.
Two lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center sat in the front row. Attorney Anjana Joshi said they had “due process and equal protection concerns” about the way the zoning ordinance was changed.
“From our perspective, this wasn’t done right,” Joshi said, adding, “We’re just getting started.”
Located about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Savannah, Sapelo Island is separated from the mainland and accessible only by boat. Since 1976, the state of Georgia has owned most of its 30 square miles (78 square kilometers) of largely untouched wilderness. Hogg Hummock, also known as Hog Hammock, covers an area of less than a square mile.
Gullah-Geechee communities are scattered along the southeast coast from North Carolina to Florida, where they have survived since their enslaved ancestors were freed by the Civil War. Scientists say these people, long separated from the mainland, have retained much of their African heritage, from their unique dialect to skills and crafts such as net fishing and basket weaving.
Hogg Hummock was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the United States’ most valuable historic sites, in 1996. But when it comes to protective measures to preserve the community, residents rely on the local government in McIntosh County, where 65% of the 11,100 residents are white.