By Associated Press - Sunday, April 11, 2021

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) - A federal judge is letting part of a lawsuit proceed alleging a Georgia county denied services to residents of Sapelo Island in part because they are Black, but with fewer plaintiffs.

The Brunswick News reports U.S. District Judge Stan Baker said some issues in the five-year-old lawsuit need to be decided by a jury, but said 19 of the 41 original plaintiffs had no standing to sue.

That’s because lawyers for McIntosh County, the defendant, said there’s no record of ownership in some properties that now-dismissed plaintiffs are paying taxes on. That reflects a common problem in the Black community, when a property owner dies and leaves land to heirs, sometimes without a will. The heirs often do not obtain legal title to the land.

Baker dismissed claims that the county discriminates against Sapelo’s Black residents in providing inadequate water service, mosquito control, recreation services and zoning enforcement. He left it for a jury to decide whether the county discriminates against the Black residents of the island in road maintenance, trash collection and fire and emergency medical services.

Baker also dismissed the claims of two organizations, Inc., a nonprofit with a mission of providing services to enhance “social, economic, educational and spiritual conditions of local and global communities,” according to its website, and Raccoon Hogg, a community development organization that says it wants to maintain the Gullah-Geechee community on the island.

Baker found that those two organization’s claims were already addressed through a settlement with the state of Georgia over improvements to access for the disabled.

The state owns 97% of Sapelo Island, which is only accessible by boat or plane. A small group of African Americans own land and live in a community known as Hog Hammock. The community has been dwindling because it’s hard to access. Some private landowners have sold parcels to outsiders for vacation homes.

Plaintiffs want roadside trash pickup, instead of having to take their trash to a central point. They also want the county to maintain roads of Sapelo, but the county says the roads are owned by the state

The county keeps a fire engine on the island for use by volunteers, but Baker noted the county has never built a fire station to shelter it. The Insurance Services Office assigns Sapelo Island a fire insurance rating of 10. That’s the poorest rating, often meaning the organization judges a community has no fire protection at all. Baker noted that the nearest emergency medical technician was 45 minutes away and that a former resident testified that the county refused her efforts to provide emergency medical training to residents.

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