My sister posted to Facebook this article from the CNN website about Sapelo Island, which is located off the Georgia Coast. As I read it and sighed, I thought, “Once again, here is the unfortunate story of how property taxes on the island have risen so high that the Gullah-Geechee inhabitants can no longer afford to live there.” This is really a shame because according to the article, Sapelo Island is all that remains of an intact Gullah Community. Now as land gives way to development, it is more important than ever to preserve the culture before it is lost forever.
To add further insult to injury, the tax assessor board chairman, James Larkin basically blames the residents for the tax hike, as some of the native islanders have sold their land to the highest bidder (I don’t have to be at the negotiating table to know that it was sold for less than what it was worth.) While Larkin is a complete jerk for making this statement, he is not wrong. But he does condemn an entire community based on the actions of a few, and that’s not fair. Furthermore, he does not know the circumstances under which the property was sold in the first place. And lastly, people just don’t wake up one morning and say, “Gee, I think I’ll sell my land today” (Well, maybe some do.) There are actually several factors that come into play, the largest being that it is difficult to stand in the way of progress.
Through my research, I have found the top reasons native islanders lose their property:
1. Money – Some people, not all, were enticed by the money. Some people, not all, did not understand the true value of their property. In both cases, they thought that the money was worth more than the land. Money can always be spent and then it’s gone. The land though, is forever.
2. Other opportunities – People left these islands in search of work, schooling, and other opportunities. They did not anticipate returning. People should keep in mind however, that once these lands are sold, there is no buying back in regardless of the amount of money obtained from the sale. Homes, condominiums, and hotels build on the acquired property creates exorbitant land values that will more than likely go beyond the reach of the native islanders who have sold their land.
3. Heirs Property – Oh the heirs property! Yes, that has certainly caused plenty of problems. It was the tradition of native islanders to pass undivided property down the family line. With each generation, the number of property owners increase just for that one parcel of land. It could get to the point where all of the heirs are unknown, which can become extremely messy if there is no will. In this case, it only takes one heir to force the sale of the entire property and it’s usually for less than what it is worth. To combat this issue, it is important for native islanders to leave a will that divides the property and specifies who gets what and which portion.
4. The Tax Hike – This is what the article on Sapelo Island is about. Property taxes rise as the land values rise. People simply cannot afford the land tax and that is not the fault of the individual.
In my book, The Promise of Palmettos, I bring out these same issues on property loss and how some tend to undervalue their land. When I shared the article that my sister posted, one of my friends responded that she didn’t see a way to prevent the issues of loss in these communities. I contend that the only way to fight back, is if each family takes responsibility for holding to what belongs to them. While it is difficult to save these ancestral lands, it is important to preserve the personal histories of people who grew up on these islands so that the Gullah culture does not get lost forever. And that’s not only important for this community but for all people.
To read the article, click on the link below: