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County Manager Makes statement to dispel rumors and untruths circulating by various media

McIntosh County Manager makes statement to dispel rumors and untruths that are circulating by various media outlets and organizations

The Office of the McIntosh County Manager Patrick Zoucks

 September 21, 2023

 Re: Zoning Updates

While the last few weeks have not been easy, McIntosh County has moved forward with the final segment of zoning updates that have been discussed, studied, analyzed, drafted and re-drafted for years.

I’d like to take a few minutes to dispel some of the rumors and untruths that have been circulating in various media in the past few days:

  1. Despite statements from various parties to the contrary, there are real concerns about the constitutionality of imposing a zoning restriction for the purpose of suppressing property values. I challenge anyone to show me a viable governmental regulation that admittedly suppresses property values. Further, I am told that no court in the State of Georgia has ever recognized an increase in value as damages. To the contrary, (and according to the County Attorney) the various legal digests are filled with examples of establishing damages through reductions in value.
  2. Real Property Taxes (Ad Valorem Taxes) have been held artificially low for many years. Historically, the values have been kept at rates unheard of in the balance of the county. There was a time when the fair market value was actually low, but those days are long gone. Descendants have sold property on the island for hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre, and tax values must reflect real value. Otherwise, the remainder of the county has to make up the difference. Admittedly, the county has entered into agreements in court actions to sustain these lower values, but those mandates are expiring. And Georgia law requires that we value real property at its fair market value. I rest on the fact that no one on Sapelo (in the last 60 years) has been forced to leave their home as the result of a tax sale. No one. Keep in mind that the Floating Homestead Exemption is available to all permanent residents, in fact anyone who declares a residence as their “homestead” in accordance with state law.
  3. Again, despite statements from various parties to the contrary, the provisions of the previous ordinance pertaining to maximum heated/cooled square footage were unenforceable on its face, and the descendants of the slaves of Thomas Spaulding have been the loudest, most vocal complainants. Our Planning and Zoning Office has received numerous complaints from descendants and demands for action. After the certificate of occupancy is issued, the County has no authority to enter the various residences without a warrant, unless permission is given. A few months back, we received a complaint regarding what is considered the largest single residence in Hogg Hammock. I dispatched two employees to Sapelo to investigate. The owner, who features prominently in the current complaints, refused to allow county personnel on his property. While a determination of the total square footage of heated and cooled spaces requires entry, the new ordinance is much easier to enforce, and does not require entry.
  4. As stated at the County Commission meeting on September 12, 2023, the descendants and their families continue to hold a significant percentage of the real property in Hogg Hammock. One statement indicated at least 50% of the building sites remained titled in the name of descendants. The County Attorney has told me that the landowners may impose restrictive covenants on their real property at the stroke of a pen. I cannot overemphasize this fact: the landowners can impose restrictions on their own property, without the constitutional tests that local governments must consider. This means that tomorrow, at least 50% of Hogg Hammock could be limited to construction of whatever square footage the descendants desired. And this provision could be enforced without the interference of any government, state or local. From the very start, the County Attorney (Ad Poppell) has insisted that the descendants held the power to address most of their concerns regarding building size.
  5. Lastly, I’ve studied finance all of my life. I have a degree in finance from Georgia Southern University. I have always known that in the absence of significant empowerment, in the form of opportunities as well as capital, communities such as Hogg Hammock will not survive. Strangely enough, it’s that last element, the injection of capital, that most of the folks don’t seem to understand. Let me dispel any rumors: McIntosh County does not generate cash on a printing press. The abuses suffered by all of McIntosh County from the State and Federal ownership of most of the developable lands in the county has reached a pinnacle; a pinnacle of disastrous proportions. McIntosh County does not have the capital to spend on the residents of the county like it has spent on the residents of Hogg Hammock. In the past few years, we’ve rebuilt the community center and we’ve built a brand new fire station. All of this was done for approximately 44 permanent residents. We’re currently seeking a massive grant to address flooding in Hogg Hammock. But the grant will only be used on lands outside of Hogg Hammock. The improvements required in Hogg Hammock will require the County to spend scarce tax dollars. Last week we hosted a contingent from the Georgia Forestry Commission regarding fire safety on Sapelo and other areas. We were told of grants that would be available to improve fire prevention. This is extremely important on barrier islands, as we learned from the disaster on Cumberland a while back.

Hogg Hammock, as one of the last surviving Gullah-Geechee communities, can survive, but only if they want to survive. The descendants of the slaves of Thomas Spaulding have it within their power to control their own destiny. Unfortunately, they have apparently chosen a different path. Just a few short years ago, a cruise ship made regular stops at the island. The cruise company decided to cancel the stop at Sapelo, and no one cared enough to ask why. The community center was once in the sole possession of the descendants and their families. The facility was abused to the point that demolition was considered. During a HUD Fair Housing inspection, a freezer with 50 pounds of seafood was found, unplugged. There should be cottage industries at every turn, renting golf carts, providing tour guides, selling keep-sakes, museums to visit, and restaurants. Instead, there’s a silence that is deafening.

I am J. Patrick Zoucks, the County Manager of McIntosh County. I stand ready to assist in any reasonable, lawful effort to preserve the Gullah Geechee heritage that is Hogg Hammock. But, I cannot do it by myself. I have met regularly with numerous individuals, including staff regarding Sapelo, and spend more time focusing on services on the island than any other area of the county. All for the 44 permanent residents of Hogg Hammock. I’ve spent more time on Sapelo than I’ve spent in Jones. I’ve spent more time on Sapelo than I’ve spent in Harris Neck. I’ve spent more time on Sapelo than I’ve spent in Cox. I’ve spent more time on Sapelo than I’ve spent in Belleville. I’ve spent more time on Sapelo than I’ve spent in Pine Harbor. My staff and I have been a part of numerous listening sessions regarding Sapelo (both on and off the island). To suggest that the county administration is not “listening” to Hogg Hammock residents is simply not true, and borders on slander.

In further news, I have instructed staff to prepare a RFP (Request for Proposals) to operate the Sapelo Community Center. I anticipate submitting the RFP to the Board of Commissioners for approval at the October, 2023 County Commission meeting. This facility has the potential to be an economic driver to help deliver the desperately needed financial impact. I look forward to the responses.