If the petition attracts enough valid signatures, the county could be forced to hold a referendum on the revised ordinance, which provides for construction of homes up to nearly twice the square footage previously allowed. Residents say they fear the zoning change will attract more off-island property buyers, which they say threatens Sapelo’s Gullah Geechee culture.
The strategy mirrors that employed by Camden County residents in 2022 to block a proposed spaceport along the Georgia coast. Groups opposing the project collected enough petition signatures — 20% of registered voters in the county — to get it on the ballot, and 72% of voters rejected the spaceport.
More recently, activist groups in Atlanta have sought a referendum on the same premise to halt construction on the city’s public safety training center, which opponents call “Cop City.” Petitioners collected more than 116,000 signatures for that effort.
Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA
Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA
The Keep Sapelo Geechee petitioners need 2,045 signatures based on the county’s 10,222 registered voters. Signatories must include a physical address that matches their voter registration information on the petitions.
The petition drive launched last week with paper documents and went online Tuesday. Digital signatures are not valid; instead, McIntosh residents are asked to print out forms available on the website, get signatures and deliver them to Keep Sapelo Geechee representatives.
Petitions are already circulating, and Keep Sapelo Geechee’s Maurice Bailey said the group expects to have 2,200 signatures “within a few weeks” with the goal of the referendum appearing on a special election ballot in spring 2024.
“I know we’ll get the signatures; we already are,” Bailey said. “It’s achievable because we have a lot of the county behind us. The voters in McIntosh County, they came to the meetings where they pushed through the ordinance changes. They are behind us. They are ready for a change in the system.”
Yet, getting 2,000-plus signatures in a sparely populated county with few places where residents congregate presents a challenge, McIntosh Commissioner Roger Lotson said. He voted against the zoning change but noted “opportunities to get a few hundred signatures at a time are rare here.”
Even so, Lotson said residents are upset with how the zoning change was handled — going from a planning commission discussion to a revised ordinance in less than a week — and determined to see it reversed.
“And we are talking about the Gullah Geechee people of Sapelo: They are used to facing challenges,” Lotson said. “So I wouldn’t put success past them.”
Keep Sapelo Geechee is a joint effort of three Sapelo-based organizations — Bailey’s Save Our Legacy Ourself, the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society and the Hog Hammock Community Foundation — along with the Coastal Georgia environmental advocacy group One Hundred Miles.
Bailey said Keep Sapelo Geechee adopted the referendum strategy because it promised results faster than lawsuits.
“Lawsuits take forever, and in the meantime you could have people putting in for building permits and start construction,” said Bailey, who didn’t rule out seeking court action if the petition drive falters.
McIntosh Commission Chairman David Stevens did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the petition drive. Stevens cast the tie-breaking vote on the revised ordinance and afterward blamed the Gullah Geechee for necessitating the zoning change, pointing to the sale of Hog Hammock properties to nondescendants and a current generation of Gullah Geechee who lack the cultural appreciation shown by their ancestors.
“This next new generation doesn’t have it, nor will they ever,” he told the standing-room-only crowd, which included several Sapelo Gullah Geechee residents.
Sapelo Island and its lone town, Hog Hammock, sit at the eastern edge of McIntosh County, a coastal area known for its shrimping boat fleet located between Savannah and Brunswick. Hog Hammock was established in the 1850s by the Gullah Geechee, who once worked at Sapelo’s Spalding Plantation. Those residents and their descendants would accumulate 434 acres on the isolated barrier island.
Today, about 40 Gullah Geechee live in Hog Hammock. There are about 325 privately owned parcels in Hog Hammock.
The rest of Sapelo’s 16,000 acres are state-owned and undeveloped beyond a lighthouse, a mansion once owned by tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds, a campground and a marine research institute operated by the University of Georgia.