Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Sheriff, Tax Assessors off Hook in Sapelo Suit; Federal Judge Rules They're Immune from Damages

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Sheriff, Tax Assessors off Hook in Sapelo Suit; Federal Judge Rules They're Immune from Damages

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Dickson

A federal judge has ruled that the McIntosh County sheriff and Board of Assessors and a state authority are immune from damages in a suit filed on behalf of 50 residents of Sapelo Island.

In issuing her ruling last week, Lisa Godbey Wood, chief judge of the Southern Circuit of Georgia, met a promise she made in May that she would rule on the immunity issue within 30 days.

Wood granted some motions in part and left some pending against all but one plaintiff, the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, an agency created to preserve the cultural and historic values of some areas of the island. Wood ordered that all claims against the authority be dismissed on the basis of immunity.

The original suit was filed in December in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, but later transferred to the Southern District so the venue would be closer to the many witnesses and residents. The state and McIntosh County defendants have questioned the standing of many of the plaintiffs who claim to be members of the African-American Gullah Geechee community living on Sapelo. The defendants have asserted that only five of the 50 actually live on Sapelo.

Those who live on Sapelo live in Hog Hammock, a small settlement near the south end of the island that, but for 3 percent, is state-owned. The plaintiffs complained that they pay high property taxes but receive few government services.

Based primarily on federal fair housing standards, the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the suit asserts that the state has discriminated against Gullah Geechee residents based on their race and disabilities.

It asserts that the state erred in passing along federal funding to McIntosh County without ensuring the money was properly used. Community Development Block Grants and federal funding intended to promote housing stability and economic development on Sapelo was spent for other purposes, the suit says.

The suit says the county used the money to benefit whites on the mainland rather than the African-Americans on Sapelo.

The suit points out there is no fire or police protection on Sapelo and that residents have to leave the island on a state ferry to attend school and work. …

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