Sapelo Island —A brief history

2000 B.C. — Indians occupy Sapelo Island.

1600s — A Spanish mission village, San Jose de Zapala is located on the island and is the island’s namesake. The village is gone by 1684.

1802 — Thomas Spalding acquires the island and eventually becomes one of Georgia’s chief planters of cotton and sugar cane and owns about 400 slaves.

1820 — A lighthouse is built at the island’s southern end, marking the entrance to Sapelo Sound and the shipping channel to Darien, Ga.

1865 — Some of the island’s slaves choose to remain on Sapelo following the Civil War and coalesce into several communities.

1912 —The island is acquired by Howard Coffin, an automobile pioneer.

1934 — The island is acquired by tobacco magnate Richard J. Reynolds, who converts much of it into a hunting preserve during the next 30 years.

1960 — Reynolds moves the slave descendants from Raccoon Bluff inland to Hog Hammock, the last of the former slave settlements to survive.

1976 — The state of Georgia finishes its purchase of about 18,000 acres from the Reynolds Estate and converts the island to an estuarine research preserve.

2012 — A McIntosh County property revaluation causes many property tax bills on Hog Hammock to spike, stirring concerns about the future viability of its Gullah-Geechee community.

SAPELO ISLAND, GA. — Fran Drayton recalls childhood visits to her grandmother, staying in her bed and sleeping under homemade quilts on this isolated Sea Island.

Drayton, 85, says her grandmother’s Gullah speech would pronounce covers as “civer.” Sometimes it felt as if every quilt she ever made was placed atop the small child, and Drayton then would try to squirm out.

“She’d say, ‘Do you have civer, baby?’ and she’d cover me all over again.”

Today, Drayton and her neighbors in Hog Hammock — the island’s only surviving Gullah/Geechee community — say they’re being smothered by something else: rising property tax bills that threaten to disrupt their coastal culture just as the federal government and others are attempting to preserve and promote it.

Cornelia Bailey, one of Drayton’s neighbors, said she has seen the taxes on property her family owns rise from $256 to almost $2,000 in a year, and the community’s plight already has made national news on CNN and in The New York Times.

“People are calling and offering sympathy and saying, ‘I wish they couldn’t do that to you all,’ ” Bailey said. “We need legal help. We need money to pay legal help. We need good ideas and suggestions.”

“If we don’t get these taxes down to a decent level, we don’t have a chance in hell to bring back young people to the island.”

A trip to Sapelo

Most of this island, about 96 percent, is a government-owned wildlife refuge, reachable only by boat or plane. A ferry makes the 20-minute trip between Sapelo and Meridian about three times a day.

Drayton occasionally leads groups of birdwatchers, photographers and other tourists to the island, where she shows them the lighthouse, the tabby ruins of the old sugar mill, and the R.J. Reynolds mansion, among other sights.

She also shows them her home in Hog Hammock. The neighborhood covers only 434 of the island’s 16,000 acres, and dozens of small homes are dotted around its small network of dirt roads. To keep its character intact, homes are limited in square footage and height.

The small homes and large lots give the area a rural feel, and Drayton said many here raise collards, cabbage, corn, peas, beans and watermelon, though commercial farming has long since ceased. Cows, deer and goats roam.

Still, some parcels have changed hands here in recent years, and a few newer homes have been built as rental properties. They stand out against the mobile homes and some dilapidated ones.

“When a new house is built, they don’t tear down the old house,” Drayton explained.

The community’s sign places the population at 70, but Bailey and others said 50 might be a better number. Many live here only part time, and while people always are coming and going, everyone knows one another.

“You don’t lock your car. You don’t lock your house. Isn’t it wonderful?” Drayton said. “They want to take that from us.”

The battle is on

McIntosh County revalued or reassessed property on Sapelo last year, and some of the new values jumped tenfold.

County officials have said the increases are a result of both recent land sales in Hog Hammock as well as errors and dubious past policies that have kept property taxes artificially low. Brett Cook, manager of both McIntosh County and the city of Darien, told The New York Times the county supports the island’s Geechee culture, in part by helping to sponsor a cultural festival this summer.

“It’s a wonderful history and a huge draw for our ecotourism,” Cook told the Times.

Tax Assessors Board Chairman James Larkin told CNN that Sapelo residents helped bring the problem on themselves because some sold property to non-islanders who built bigger, upscale vacation homes. Neither Larkin nor Cook returned calls requesting comment for this story.

Reed Colfax, a Washington lawyer, is helping some island residents with their property tax appeals, and he also has filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We believe there is evidence to show there is intention to discriminate, to show this African-American population is being targeted, perhaps because McIntosh County doesn’t believe they have a powerful voice and will be able to push back,” he said.

It’s hard for Sapelo residents to influence county officials because they are few in number and it’s a long trip by boat and car to the county seat. Depending on the ferry schedule, they might not be able to go and return home the same day.

“I attended three commission meetings with the same complaint: Why can’t you clean the ditches?” Drayton said. “The third time, the chair of the commission said, ‘You know you’re the only one complaining?’ I have not been back. And the ditches still have not been cleaned.”

Heritage Corridor help?

Rising property taxes and property sales to developers have eroded Gullah/Geechee communities along the Southeastern coast for decades.

What is different about the Sapelo situation is that it comes shortly after Congress and the National Park Service formed the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, a group of officials from four states who are trying to raise awareness of the culture, improve the quality of life for Gullah/Geechee people and protect, preserve and restore their communities.

Michael Allen, a Park Service ranger based in Charleston, is the commission’s community partnership specialist.

“Unfortunately, what’s happening on Sapelo is indicative of what’s happening throughout the whole corridor,” he said. “I’ve seen this type of conversation, whether it’s Sapelo, whether it’s Hilton Head or whether it’s Johns Island.”

Allen said at issue is whether these traditional communities should be penalized —and altered —because of a modern intrusion of wealth.

“At the very heart of it all is land – land retention, land ownership, and land within those communities and families,” he said.

Charles Hall, who spends part of his time on Sapelo and part on Hilton Head Island, serves as the secretary to the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

“They’re still trying to increase the tax, and our belief is it’s because the developers want the land and want to tax people off the land, particularly those who don’t have the means or the income to even pay the taxes,” he said.

The commission sent a letter to Colfax this fall voicing support for McIntosh County Commissioner Charles Jordan’s plan to allow residents in Hog Hammock to receive a preferential tax assessment because of their historic district.

“The ordinance would freeze the property tax assessments at the 2011 level and would allow the Hog Hammock community to survive,” the letter said, adding, “Sapelo Island, Ga., which is home to Hog Hammock, is the one remaining intact Gullah Geechee community in the USA. The McIntosh County imposition of unprecedented property tax increases on Sapelo Island is in direct opposition to the mission and goals that the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission was established to uphold.”

So far, Jordan’s proposal has not moved.

A future at stake

Even if residents successfully push back against the rising property taxes, there’s a larger issue looming as more people seem interested in moving to this pristine barrier island.

Drayton said some have suggested putting most of Hog Hammock in a land trust, but the idea didn’t go anywhere.

Hall said island residents face other challenges, such as pursuing land claims, road upkeep, poor drainage, trash collection, handicapped access at the ferry dock and residents’ access to tourism and other jobs on the island.

“Right now, we have to get this tax abatement straightened out,” he said. “Then we can deal with a lot of other stuff.”

Meanwhile, more property is changing hands and newer homes and rental properties are being built, often by those with no historical ties to the community. Over time, it is possible such properties could erode the culture, whether that’s the intention or not.

Those boarding the ferry on the mainland can take shelter in a small room overlooking Sapelo Sound. On a bulletin board there is taped a front-page Oct. 10 editorial in The Darien News.

The editorial recounts Hog Hammock’s ongoing saga of rising property taxes and subsequent court battles that continue to this day, but it also suggests the only lasting solution lies in creating a tax district, a new authority or something “bigger, better and more innovative” to protect both the community and the county’s taxpayers.

“What is ultimately at stake is the future of Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock Geechee-Gullah culture,” it concludes. “Sooner than later, the line has to be drawn as to whether this cultural lifestyle of slaves can continue or not.”

Ten of the island’s Gullah/Geechee communities already have vanished or been consolidated to the 434 acres in the island’s middle. Only one remains.

“When other people look at the Hog Hammock community — that’s all we have now — they just see a little community with dirt roads,” Drayton said. “But we see people in it.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.