Property Tax Avalanche Threatens Homeowners on Historic Coastal Island

10/28/2013, 10:01 a.m.
It's a culture struggling to survive. Fewer than 50 people -- all descendants of slaves -- fear they may soon ...
It's a culture struggling to survive. Fewer than 50 people -- all descendants of slaves -- fear they may soon be taxed out of the property their families have owned since the days of slavery. They are the Gullah-Geechee people of Sapelo Island off Georgia's coast, near Savannah. This small, simple community is finding itself embroiled in a feud with local officials over a sudden, huge increase in property assessments that are raising property taxes as much as 600% for some. Photo courtesy of CNN.

She added, with a hint of anger in her voice, "You can call 911, but nobody gonna squeal up to your front door, so forget it."

Homeowners are hiring lawyers now to have their displeasure heard in state and federal court.

Reed Colfax -- a partner at Relman, Dane & Colfax, one of the leading housing discrimination litigation firms in the country -- is heading full speed into court to have the tax bills struck down for at least half the residents of the island.

"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."

Tax Assessors Board Chairman James Larkin suggests the Sapelo residents brought this issue on themselves, as some began to sell their property to developers and non-islanders who built bigger, upscale vacation homes, causing valuations to increase, and along with them their property taxes.

"If they hadn't started selling their property, there wouldn't be a problem," he told CNN.

But Reginald Hall isn't buying that argument. He and his family own three properties on more than seven acres of property on the island.

The assessed "fair market value" of their property went from $176,075 in 2011 to $910,333 in 2012. That brought on increase of more than 500% in property taxes. He is refusing to pay the taxes and he refuses to sell his family land, which he says is worth over $3 million.

"Once you leave, you are separated from more family members ... which is a real interruption in the generational teachings on this island of the culture," he said.

"We leave, and we're gone. Can't come back, because if we try to come back after we sell, you can't afford to buy," he told CNN.

Cornelia Bailey said her land may be worth about $384,000, but in reality it is priceless.

"I told one guy it was priceless, and he said everything has a price, and I said, you don't know me, this is priceless. You don't have enough money to buy it, so forget it," she said.

"We have a legacy that most people would die to have. We're fighting to keep it even for the unborn."

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