By RUSS BYNUM
DARIEN, Ga. (AP) - George Grovner's island property off the southeastern Georgia coast isn't fancy, just an acre of land with a double-wide mobile home on it. But he's hung onto the place long after moving to the mainland to stay connected to his roots among the slave descendants who have stayed on Sapelo Island for generations, since the Civil War ended.
Grovner says he's paid $600 a year in property taxes on his home in the tiny Hog Hammock community for as long as he can remember. So he was stunned last year to see that his tax bill had more than tripled to $2,100. Other Hog Hammock residents were in for a similar bout of sticker shock when they opened their property tax bills from coastal McIntosh County, about 60 miles south of Savannah.
"For me, right now, I could handle it," Grovner, 64, said Tuesday as he and other Sapelo Island taxpayers met at the county courthouse to appeal their property assessments. "For the people who live on the island and don't have the same income, it's a big burden."
County appraisers insist they're just doing their jobs, valuing homes according to market demands and sale prices of land in the community. Residents say the tax hike is potentially burdensome enough to wipe out one of the Southeast coast's last remaining Gullah-Geechee communities from North Carolina to Florida. Made up of slave descendants who long remained isolated from the mainland, the Gullah-Geechee culture is prized for having clung to its African roots and traditions more than any other in America.
These are people whose numbers are shrinking as younger generations move to the mainland and assimilate. Now Hog Hammock descendants and their advocates say the roughly 50 residents who remain face being taxed off their land.
"I call it cultural genocide," said Cornelia Bailey, who was born on Sapelo Island in 1945 and has become Hog Hammock's pre-eminent storyteller and its unofficial historian. "This is the only home most of these people have. With these taxes going up, how long can you afford to pay this escalating tax before you can't pay it anymore? Most people can't pay it at all."
Bailey and her husband, Julius, run a bed-and-breakfast that's one of the few businesses in Hog Hammock. He worries some residents may take out loans they won't be able to pay off before their next property tax bills arrive.
Since 2010, a handful of Hog Hammock landowners have sold their properties for as much as $165,500 for a half-acre to wealthier mainland buyers wanting to build houses near the water.
"The Civil War ended nearly 150 years ago, and these slave descendants are still fighting to hold onto their land," said Michael Thurmond, a former Georgia labor commissioner and an attorney who is working to help the island residents.
Hog Hammock's dirt roads and modest homes cover less than a square mile on Sapelo Island, where slaves long ago picked cotton on the plantation of Thomas Spalding. The state of Georgia has owned the rest of the island's 30 square miles, which remain mostly unspoiled wilderness, since 1976. The federal government in 1996 added Hog Hammock to its list of historically significant treasures, the National Register of Historic Places. Reachable mainly by ferry, the barrier island also includes The Reynolds Museum, which was owned by tobacco heir Richard Reynolds from 1934 to 1964.
McIntosh County property appraisers said at an appeal hearing Tuesday they based their latest home values on sales prices for eight island properties sold in and around Hog Hammock since 2010.
Hog Hammock taxpayers say it's particularly unfair to raise their taxes considering the remote island receives virtually no county services.
"There's no school, no paved roads, no trash pickup and no police station," said Edna Holmes of Brunswick, whose property tax bill for 2 undeveloped acres shot up from $200 to $2,700 a year.
Still, property appraiser Blair McLinn acknowledged to the appeals board that he didn't consider a 1994 county ordinance that designates Hog Hammock as a special zoning district intended "to reserve this area for low intensity residential and cottage industry uses which are environmentally sound and will not contribute to land value increases which could force removal of the indigenous population."
The board that handles property tax appeals _ and was scheduled to hear 43 of them from Hog Hammock residents Tuesday and Wednesday _ voted 2-1 to have appraisers recalculate the taxable values of all Hog Hammock properties. The move would also affect more than 20 property owners who had previously appealed their tax bills and lost.