S.C. islanders work to save Gullah culture

Native islanders hope to create a regulatory shield to protect old island neighborhoods from modern development some fear will bury the historic traditions of Gullah culture.

Four property owners associations of native island residents have been working with Hilton Head Island officials for the past year to create a Gullah/Geechee district. Such a district would impose stricter zoning guidelines, which they hope will protect the unimposing areas from the bulldozers.

Many of those neighborhoods still resemble Hilton Head before the bridges, resorts and sprawling beach mansions. These are communities of small homes and trailers near waterways used for fishing, once Hilton Head's claim to fame.

The areas are a part of the island's history, a part many have long fretted will be erased as the demand for land grows stronger.

“Daily, it's changing,” said Fran White, a member of the Baygall Property Owners Association who is heading up the effort. “Baygall is going through a lot of changes with developers coming in. It's happening all around us. So there is the urgency.”

The native islanders have proposed something similar to zoning restrictions that protect a few other older island areas from overdevelopment.

Residents in those beachfront areas became worried their small bungalow neighborhoods would be replaced by huge homes or mini-hotels that would destroy the quaint character. The zoning restrictions limit the size of homes and the density of development, and mandate aesthetics such as tree cover.

In the native island areas, residents are looking for similar restrictions, such as regulations for setbacks and fencing, White said.

But the trick will be creating guidelines while keeping the specific character of each neighborhood in mind, she said. Some neighborhoods were created long ago near waterways to house shrimpers and anglers; other inland areas are less dense because they were settled by farmers.

“Probably most people (who) are not familiar with the native island community probably think of them as one monolithic group,” she said. “It's not. It's little neighborhoods.”

The effort started in January 2007 and has continued through a few meetings with town planning staff.

Town community development director Charles Cousins said the proposal still lacked a clear purpose and had conflicting wishes for different neighborhoods.

Some of the ideas have been proposed before, but the residents really need the support of the council to accomplish their goals, he said.

“As far as changing the zoning, that's a major task, and you really need to get council to buy into it,” he said.

The residents also want to clearly define and mark the boundaries of the native island areas so tourists and residents will recognize when they've entered the neighborhoods.

Even if it takes a lot of work, creating a Gullah district fits in with the ongoing process of updating the town's comprehensive plan.

“There are a lot of people who come on the island; they have no idea where the native islanders are,” White said. “We are trying to preserve that history.”