DARIEN, Ga. -- Residents of one of the few remaining Gullah-Geechee communities on the Southeast coast opened new appeals Monday against soaring property values that brought them big tax hikes, fearful they could be forced off lands their families have owned since their ancestors were freed from slavery. The African-American residents of the tiny Hog Hammock community on Georgia's Sapelo Island got sticker shock last year when steep increases in their property values saddled them with whopping tax bills. Skyrocketing appraisals and tax bills come amid pressure from affluent mainland buyers driving up land values while seeking property along or near the Atlantic coast. But critics say the increasing tax burden violates protections enacted to help preserve the island's indigenous inhabitants.
Made up of slave descendants long isolated from the U.S. mainland, the Gullah-Geechee culture has clung to its African roots and traditions more than any other in America. (Pictured above is a marker telling its story on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina.) Hog Hammock -- with fewer than 50 residents -- is one of the last such communities from North Carolina to Florida. Julius and Cornelia Bailey saw the appraised value of the single acre on which they have a home, a convenience store and a small inn shoot from $220,285 in 2011 to $327,063 last year. Appraisers in Georgia's McIntosh County held firm on the new value after being ordered to take a second look in January by local authorities. The Baileys and more than 40 of their neighbors appealed anew Monday after seeing little relief from the new appraisals.
Cornelia Bailey said her tax bill shot from about $800 to $3,000, though she and other island residents receive virtually no county services. They have no schools, no trash pickup, no police station and only one paved road. "So what are we paying taxes for?" Bailey said after the board shot down her appeal and at least nine others Monday. "We're just paying for privilege of living on Sapelo Island. We don't want to be crybabies, but it seems like we're being treated unfairly."
Sapelo Island is separated from the mainland and reachable only by boat. Since 1976, the state of Georgia has owned most of its 30 square miles, largely unspoiled wilderness, while the tiny Hog Hammock community sits on less than a square mile of modest homes amid dirt roads. The Gullah, referred to as Geechee in Georgia, are scattered in island communities over 425 miles of Atlantic coast where they've endured after their slave ancestors who worked island plantations were freed by the Civil War. Scholars say these people long separated from the mainland retained much of their African heritage -- from unique dialect to skills and crafts such as cast-net fishing and weaving baskets. But isolation also caused Gullah communities to shrink.
Since 2010, a handful of Hog Hammock landowners have sold their properties for as much as $165,500 a half-acre to mainland buyers wanting to build houses near the water. County appraisers insist they have valued homes according to market demands and land sale prices in the community. "The values that we placed on their properties, we feel they still hold," said property appraiser Blair McLinn. "Nothing, we felt, has changed."
In at least one case the resulting property value increase was extreme. William and Maggie Banks saw a single acre of undeveloped land they own vault from an appraised value of $10,000 two years ago to a whopping $181,250. The appeals board upheld that higher value Monday.
Reed Colfax is a Washington-based attorney for 28 Hog Hammock landowners who have a separate housing discrimination complaint pending against McIntosh County with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said the higher appraisals fly in the face of a 1994 county ordinance that designates Hog Hammock a special zoning district intended to prevent "land value increases which could force removal of the indigenous population."
"They can't afford it," Colfax said. "They're going to be forced off the island in direct contradiction to the ordinance."
Attorneys for Hog Hammock residents argued Monday that county appraisers unfairly valued properties based on land sales between corporations and developers that were artificially high and dealt with properties never listed on the open market. They also said newer homes that have driven up property values are larger than allowed under zoning ordinances.
Robert Hudley, chairman of McIntosh County's Board of Equalization that hears appeals of property values, said his board was powerless to deal with zoning violations. He urged Hog Hammock residents to keep up their fight as the board upheld most of the higher appraisals. Its decisions can be appealed to Superior Court.
"I agree with what you're saying," Hudley told the group. "I'm saying go to a higher court. This doesn't need to stop here. It needs to go further."
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