Katie Brown, former slave on Sapelo Island, Georgia (21.6)
(Photograph by Muriel and Malcolm Bell, ca. 1939)

The residents of Sapelo Island, Georgia could lose their land that their families have owned since slavery because of a property tax increase. The Gullah-Geechee people of Sapelo Island, are facing an increase in property assessments that could raise property taxes as much as 600% for some.

From CNN:

“That’s part of the American history. That’s part of what built this country,” said Charles Hall, 79, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who was born under a midwife’s care in the same home he lives in today.

“Sapelo being the only intact Gullah-Geechee community in the country that’s left, that is a part of history. It will be a shame not to preserve” it, he told CNN.

McIntosh County’s decision to reappraise homes on the island sparked the problem.

County Attorney Adam Poppell told CNN that the Gullah-Geechee culture is invaluable, but the properties had been historically undervalued due to errors in previous property appraisals.

“We have to follow the law, and assess at fair market value,” he told CNN.

To fix the problem, he said, “the state has to create a special exemption for cultural communities.”

But by fixing the problem, many of the islands 50 residents will no longer be able to afford to live there. If you take a look on Trulia at recent real estate prices on Sapelo Island, you’ll notice prices from $200,000 to 500k+.

Cornelia Bailey is a ninth-generation resident of Sapelo Island, and can trace her family’s roots directly to the Angola slave trade. Bailey said the taxes on her one acre property have gone from $600 a year to about $2,300. “All these years of getting nothing, then all of a sudden, they want to lay this tax on your back and still not give you nothing. For the last three years, we’ve been paying $128 a year for garbage collection. I don’t even have my green garbage can. Where’s my can? You can call 911, but nobody gonna squeal up to your front door, so forget it ” she said.

Reed Colfax — a partner at Relman, Dane & Colfax- is representing several of the island’s residents in an attempt to have the tax bills struck down.

“The solution is that we freeze the tax assessments, we get the services to this island, so the people can live here,” he said. “Families can move back in, have children here, have jobs on the mainland, or even develop their own economy here on the island.”

But the Tax Assessors Chairman James Larkin blames the former residents for the increase in taxes. Larkin says some sold their homes to developers who built upscale vacation homes, which caused valuations and property taxes to increase.

“If they hadn’t started selling their property, there wouldn’t be a problem,” he told CNN.


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