When it rains on Sapelo Island, it doesn’t take long for the roads to turn into mud according to Gullah resident Stacey Grovner.
“Back in March we had a torrential downpour over a week long period; we got over 11 inches of rain over one week. The roads were like soup.”
She says she wonders where her tax dollars are going because the island does not have many of the services common on the mainland like paved roads. Her white van splashes through the water filled dents in the dirt road as she pulls into the driveway of her home. Like most Gullah houses, it is raised off the ground, made of wood and has a large screened front porch.
“It’s about 3 1/2 acres, that’s my family’s property," she said gesturing to the home.
The taxes on that land were $330 in 2011, according to county records. The very next year, their bill was over $3600. The fair market value on the land rose by over $200,000. Tax hikes are what some descendants are calling, a systematic attempt to force Gullah people from the land to make way for more vacation properties. That has resulted in a Civil Rights lawsuit against the county. At least 50 tax appeals and 45 administrative complaints have been filed since 2012 against McIntosh County.
Wayne Mitchell is the McIntosh County tax assessor.
"Some of those adjustments possibly were too great and we are trying to adjust them accordingly," Mitchell said. “When the real estate market started going down back in 2007, 2008 range - the state applied a moratorium on the county so they could not raise values." In 2012, Mitchell says the county resumed adjusting.
Last year, many property owners saw their taxes go down. Stacey Grovner saw her tax bill go down by 40 percent from the year before, but it was still much higher than in 2011.
Higher taxes are not the only threat to island culture. The average person in Hogg Hummuck renamed Hogg Hammock by the state, is of retirement age. Stacey Grovner’s cousin, Iregene Grovner, or JR as his friends and family call him, is 35 years old. He was born and raised on Sapelo, but moved a few years ago.
"Well I got married and my wife works on the mainland so the ferry schedule kind of interferes with her work schedule," JR said. The ferry, which is the only way to reach the island, stops at 5:30 pm. It does not run most major holidays.
JR also works on the mainland but he's trying to build an income giving tours of the island. The state owns the ferry and also provides tours which he said can lead to complications.
"I had a family reunion group want to come: 100 people wanted to come to the island one weekend. They only allowed me to bring 45, so of course the group won’t come because the rest of their family won't come."
The state says groups over 40 are not allowed to come to the island unless it is a major community event.
There are few jobs on Sapelo and some fear without economic growth, younger generations that live away, will choose to sell their land rather than hold on to a culture they barely know.
The island’s oldest resident Fran Drayton has watched the changes unfold over the years.
"Every day it’s shrinking a little bit...people are building houses behind me right now," she said, referring to the resort like developments near her home. "And people are still selling their land. But you can’t tell them what to do with their land. It’s theirs."
Some Gullah residents have filed a lawsuit against McIntosh County. They’re asking that taxes for descendants be returned to the 2011 rate indefinitely.