Residents of Sapelo Island concerned over proposed zoning ordinance

Published: Sep. 6, 2023 at 5:42 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 6, 2023 at 6:32 PM EDT
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MCINTOSH COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - Sapelo Island, only accessible by boat, is an isolated place off Georgia’s coast. That seclusion has allowed a Gullah-Geechee community to survive there for generations.

Now, residents of the island say a proposed zoning ordinance from McIntosh County threatens to erase their history and way of life.

“17-18 hundreds. Generations”

That is how long Josiah Watts’ family has been on Sapelo Island. The island is home to Hog Hammock, a predominately Gullah-Geechee community.

The current zoning ordinance from McIntosh County states that the community has unique needs because of its history, and structures should not increase the cost of living so the indigenous population is not forced off the island.

A new proposed zoning ordinance removes those statements entirely, instead mentioning that different dwellings and small commercial establishments are needed to support the island community, with no mention of the indigenous people.

“It amounts to erasure, and that’s what we’re talking about. Some people say urban renewal, I say urban removal,” said Watts.

Watts and other residents said a major concern with the proposed ordinance is changes to building sizes. Right now, the maximum size for a house is 1,400 square feet.

The new ordinance would set the maximum size as a percentage of the land it sits on. They say the smallest pieces of land would be allowed to hold a home four and half times larger than the current maximum.

“But what you see is ‘oh all of a sudden now, it’s not 1,400 square feet, but it’s gone to percentages, and now I can build a structure, you know, that can be over 6,000 square feet,’” said Watts.

Another change is the ability to build golf courses on the island. Williams says changes like these were proposed without working directly with the community.

“You don’t just put your ideas and your things into motion without consulting the people, that’s the entire thing this whole country was based off of. It’s ‘I want your input.’ We want to be considered, and the island wants to be considered,” said Rhonikki Williams, Sapelo Island Saltwater Geechee Descendent

Residents said these changes can greatly increase the cost of living, which is what the current ordinance is supposed to prevent.

“I don’t want to be a visitor to what’s supposed to be my home, that’s my main thing. I don’t want to wind up being a visitor to my home because I lost land because I can’t afford it,” said Williams.

The county is holding a public hearing about the proposed changes Thursday afternoon at 5:30 in the McIntosh County Courthouse.

Because a boat is the only way to get to and from the island, the ferry schedule has been adjusted to allow islanders to get back home after the meeting on the mainland.