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Georgia county seeking to dismiss lawsuit by slave descendants over rezoning of their island homes

A sticker saying "Keep Sapelo Geechee" is worn on the shirt of George Grovner, a resident of the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island, during a meeting of McIntosh County commissioners, Sept. 12, 2023, in Darien, Ga. County commissioners in Georgia are asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit by Black residents descended from slaves who fear new zoning changes will force them to sell their island homes in one of the South's last surviving Gullah-Geechee communities. (AP Photo/Ross Bynum, File) A sticker saying "Keep Sapelo Geechee" is worn on the shirt of George Grovner, a resident of the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island, during a meeting of McIntosh County commissioners, Sept. 12, 2023, in Darien, Ga. County commissioners in Georgia are asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit by Black residents descended from slaves who fear new zoning changes will force them to sell their island homes in one of the South's last surviving Gullah-Geechee communities. (AP Photo/Ross Bynum, File)
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SAVANNAH, Ga. -

County commissioners in Georgia are asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit by Black residents descended from slaves who fear new zoning changes will force them to sell their island homes in one of the South's last surviving Gullah-Geechee communities.

Residents and landowners of the tiny Hogg Hummock community sued in October after McIntosh County commissioners voted to weaken zoning restrictions that for decades helped protect the enclave of modest homes along dirt roads on largely unspoiled Sapelo Island.

The zoning changes doubled the size of houses allowed in Hogg Hummock. Black residents say larger homes in the community will lead to property tax increases that they won't be able to afford. Their lawsuit asks a judge to declare the new law discriminates "on the basis of race, and that it is therefore unconstitutional, null, and void."

Attorneys for the county filed a legal motion Nov. 20 asking a Superior Court judge to dismiss the lawsuit, noting that Georgia's constitution grants the state and local governments broad immunity from litigation.

However, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that such protection from lawsuits, known as sovereign immunity, isn't absolute. And state voters in 2020 approved a constitutional amendment carving out limited exceptions. It says governments can be sued when they break the law or violate the constitution.

A hearing on the county's legal motion has been scheduled for Feb. 20.

The lawsuit by Hogg Hummock landowners accuses McIntosh County officials of violating Georgia laws governing zoning procedures and public meetings, as well as residents' constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. It says county commissioners intentionally targeted a mostly poor, Black community to benefit wealthy, white land buyers and developers.

McIntosh County officials denied wrongdoing in their legal response filed in court.

Regardless of whether the landowners' case has merit, it should be thrown out because they "failed to demonstrate that sovereign immunity has been waived," attorney Paul Frickey wrote in the county's legal motion. He added that their lawsuit "is wholly silent on the topic."

Attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Hogg Hummock landowners, had no comment Thursday, spokesperson Lynda Hasberry said.

About 30 to 50 Black residents still live in Hogg Hummock, founded by former slaves who had worked the island plantation of Thomas Spalding. Descendants of enslaved island populations in the South became known as Gullah, or Geechee in Georgia. Their long separation from the mainland meant they retained much of their African heritage.

Hogg Hummock, also known as Hog Hammock, sits on less than a square mile (2.6 square kilometers) of Sapelo Island, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Savannah. Reachable only by boat, the island is mostly owned by the state of Georgia.

The community's population has shrunk in recent decades. Some families have sold land to outsiders who built vacation homes. New construction has caused tension over how large those homes can be.

County officials approved the larger home sizes and other zoning changes Sept. 12 after three public meetings held five days apart. Well over 100 Hogg Hummock residents and landowners packed those meetings to voice objections, but were given just one chance to speak to the changes.

Despite vocal opposition from Black landowners, commissioners raised the maximum size of a home in Hogg Hummock to 3,000 square feet (278 square meters) of total enclosed space. The previous limit was 1,400 square feet (130 square meters) of heated and air-conditioned space.

Commissioners who supported the changes said the prior size limit based on heated and cooled space wasn't enforceable and didn't give homeowners enough room for visiting children and grandchildren to stay under one roof.

Outside of court, Hogg Hummock residents are gathering petition signatures in hopes of forcing a special election that would give McIntosh County voters a chance to override the zoning changes.

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