Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit asserting Georgia and McIntosh County discriminate against Black Sapelo Island residents have agreed to settle all claims in exchange for improvements to the state-owned dock and ferry that serves the island and $750,000.
Still pending before U.S. District Judge Stan Baker, however, are the claims against McIntosh County, including a Jacksonville woman’s assertion that the county should have elementary and middle schools, full time life guards on its beach, a fully staffed medical clinic and 24-hour ferry service to the mainland.
Victoria Hall, a 38-year-old single mother of five, is just one of 50 plaintiffs or their representatives who settled with the state for cash and some improvements to facilities that were likely coming anyway.
Before Baker now is a motion for a summary judgment in which McIntosh County asserts that Sapelo residents receive services the county doesn’t provide to residents on other barrier islands and that some of the plaintiffs are not Sapelo Island residents or property owners and have no standing to sue.
In the settlement, the state agreed to a number of projects, including providing accessibility to the handicapped using the mainland dock at Meridian and the Marsh Landing dock on Sapelo.
Among other things, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources agreed to:
• Install a wheelchair lift it has already purchased at the Meridian dock.
• Repair the concrete approach to the restroom at Meridian within 30 days.
• Demolish the Marsh Landing dock including the fixed concrete pier, the covered waiting pavilion, the aluminum gangways and concrete floating docks and replace them with new facilities that comply fully with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
In a second phase, the DNR will demolish the Meridian dock and replace it with ADA compliant structures and install ADA compliant parking.
Both island and mainland docks will be outfitted with new 80-foot gangways.
The DNR will install printed and audio assistance for the disabled on the ferry and the DNR commissioner will meet yearly with Sapelo residents to discuss Sapelo Island Heritage Authority issues. The authority is a state agency that oversees heritage-related policies on the island.
The authority will also consider transferring “necessary land” to a land trust or through the use of a lease agreement.
The state also agreed to pay the $750,000 settlement to the D.C. law firm of Relman Colfax and Reed Colfax.
In the original suit, the plaintiffs asserted McIntosh County discriminated against Black Sapelo Island residents by failing to provide fire protection, sewer service, a school, emergency medical services, law enforcement, road maintenance and other services.
In its motion for summary judgment, McIntosh County said Sapelo actually receives more services than the county provides on Hird, Barbour and other islands inhabited by White residents.
The county provides a trash compactor, grades roads that are privately owned through an agreement with the state and provided a new fire engine for the use of volunteer firefighters. The county has no full-time paid firefighters and maintains fire protection in the unincorporated areas with volunteers who have use of nine fire stations and fire engines. And unlike other inhabited islands and much of the mainland, Sapelo Island has some working fire hydrants.
The motion points out that the state owns all of the island but for 3 percent, the 130 acres of Hogg Hammock, a settlement once populated solely by the descendants of former slaves, and the half acre McIntosh County owns. On its half acre, McIntosh County has a community center and a shelter for the firetruck.
The lawsuit asserts that the county’s actions discriminate against the Gullah-Geechee residents of Sapelo. The county counters in its motion that there are only 33 Gullah-Geechee residents living in 13 or 14 households on an island that has 103 habitable residences.
It also notes that plaintiff Florence Hall said in a deposition that Sapelo Island is no longer a Black community and that the population is likely evenly divided between Blacks and Whites.
As to the assertion that Sapelo Island residents pay a disproportionate share of property taxes, the motion compares property sales with fair market values that county appraisers assigned to them.
A piece of property assessed at $18,750 is listed for sale in two half-acre parcels at $125,000 each, the motions says.
Also, Reginald Hall, a very vocal plaintiff, sold for $90,000 a parcel valued at $15,000, the motion asserts.
In another example, a corporate entity sold an improved lot valued at $195,525 for $385,000. Properties valued for $15,000 to $20,000 sell for more than $100,000, the motion asserts.
The county also estimates that through the services it provides, it subsidizes each property on Sapelo $1,000 per year.
The defense motion notes that 14 of the 50 plaintiffs have no property interests on the island and no standing to sue and that a few have claimed interests based on previous generations. One of the plaintiffs can claim only a 1/45 interest in a piece of property.
The vast number of plaintiffs have asserted property claims but are not full-time residents, and, the defense motion says, “Some have not stepped foot on Sapelo Island in decades.”
It also says Reginald Hall and his wife Angelina live in New Bedford, Mass., and that in nine years, Angelina Hall has spent only three weeks on Sapelo.
In Victoria Hall’s case, there are no Superior Court records backing her assertion that she inherited property on the island from her late father. There is also no record that her father ever owned the property where she intends to build a house, the county said in its pleadings.
In her deposition, Victoria Hall asserted the state and county are discriminating against her because of her race. She complained there is no medical facility on Sapelo and said the government has a duty to build one and staff it with more than one physician on duty at all times.
In her deposition Hall mistakenly said the island has no library, but it has had one for more than a decade. Hall also said the county should pave all of Sapelo’s roads, but the county does not own any of the roads, all of which are dirt, but does keep them graded.
The county also says in its motion it provides no ferry or sewer service anywhere, that it offers water service to only 10 percent of its residents and that it provides no medical services beyond the $50,000 it gives annually to the public health department.
The county is asking the court for summary judgment in its favor on all claims.