Attorneys for Georgia slave descendants urge judge not to throw out their lawsuit over island zoning

Attorneys for Georgia slave descendants urge judge not to throw out their lawsuit over island zoning
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SAVANNAH, Ga. — Lawyers suing a Georgia county over zoning changes that they say threaten one of the South’s last Gullah-Geechee communities of black slave descendants asked a judge Tuesday to let them correct technical issues with their civil complaint to prevent it from being rejected.

An attorney for coastal McIntosh County argued that the judge should dismiss the lawsuit because it violates a 2020 amendment to Georgia’s state constitution that addresses legal immunity given to state and local governments.

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Residents of the small Hogg Hummock community filed a lawsuit in October after county commissioners voted to weaken zoning restrictions that for decades have helped protect the enclave of modest homes along dirt roads on the largely pristine island of Sapelo.

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

The legal arguments Supreme Court Justice Jay Stewart heard Tuesday did not address the merits of the case. Instead, they addressed purely technical flaws in the lawsuit filed by attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center and whether those issues warranted an outright dismissal.

Georgia voters amended the state constitution in 2020 to weaken broad immunity from lawsuits granted to state and local governments. While the amendment allowed citizens to sue Georgian governments for illegal acts, it also stated that such lawsuits could no longer list individual government officials as defendants.

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The lawsuit filed on behalf of Hogg Hummock residents names not only McIntosh County as a defendant, but also the five individual commissioners.

Ken Jarrard, an attorney for McIntosh County, told the judge that such errors require an “absolute, ironclad dismissal as a matter of law,” based on the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling last year in a similar case.

“It’s a tough rule,” Jarrard said, “but it’s the rule.”

Miriam Gutman, an attorney for the Sapelo Island residents, argued that they should be able to make changes to the lawsuit, namely dropping the five commissioners as defendants, to ensure it meets the demand.

“Courts routinely grant amendments, sometimes multiple times, to many different parts of a complaint, to move a case forward,” Gutman said.

Gutman asked the judge, if he decides to dismiss the case, to dismiss it “without prejudice.” That would allow Hogg Hummock residents to file a new lawsuit over the same issues.

The judge did not make a ruling on Tuesday. He gave both parties until March 1 to submit proposed orders reflecting how they would like him to govern.

“The significance of this case is not lost on me,” Stewart said from the bench. He added that he has visited Hogg Hummock “and I know what it means to the people who live there.”

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Hogg Hummock, also known as Hog Hammock, is located on less than 1 square mile (2.6 square kilometers) on Sapelo Island, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Savannah. The island is only accessible by boat and is largely owned by the state of Georgia.

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

The residents’ lawsuit accuses McIntosh County 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 deliberately targeted a predominantly poor, black community for the benefit of wealthy, white land buyers and developers.

McIntosh County officials denied wrongdoing in a legal response filed with the court.

Outside the courthouse, residents of Hogg Hummock have been collecting 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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