SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The movement to create a new city in Chatham County is over Tuesday night after State Senator Ben Watson (R – Savannah) and Representative Jesse Petrea (R – Savannah) decided to kill the bill before a House vote.
News 3 talked exclusively with organizers of the group behind the movement who say they are “deeply disappointed” with their elected officials.
House Bill 710 would have allowed residents of Wilmington, Whitemarsh, Talahi and Oatland islands to vote on whether they wanted to create a new city. If a majority voted no, lawmakers would have abandoned future plans.
“Nobody would look after this island better than the friends and neighbors who live here,” said Adam Avant, the president of Islands Community Association.
For the last two years, Avant says he worked meticulously and tirelessly to convince the islands’ state congressmen to put the bill to a vote. He showed News 3 pages of research, and more than one thousand hand-written petitions signed in support of the referendum.
A Landmark Communications Poll says 60 percent of people on the islands supported the bill. 19.6 percent said they were undecided.
Rep. Jesse Petrea says the poll was completed a year ago and does not accurately reflect the current views of residents on the Chatham Islands, who have since educated themselves and changed their minds.
Petrea says 50 percent of Oatland Island residents submitted a petition explaining their views against House Bill 710. Petrea also says he has received many emails, phone calls and messages from residents who no longer support incorporation.
“They are a small group that continues to be a small group and they did not grow their base,” he said of those who favor incorporation. “It’s the simple will of the people.”
Rep. Petrea says rumors that he and Sen. Watson support the consolation of the islands and the city are false. He says an effort does not exist and if it did, both congressmen would vote against it.
After members of the Georgia Legislature refused to pay for a feasibility study — which is required for city proposals — Avant says residents stepped up to raise the required money.
“The residents of these islands in 31410 got together and raised 30,000 in $5s, $10s and $20 donations to fund the study. Does that sound like people never wanted it or don’t want it?” he asked.
In March of 2019, the Chatham County Board of Elections says 72 percent of voters turned out on Skidaway Island to vote on whether it should become its own city.
Though the bill ultimately failed, Avant says he is confident that residents of the Chatham Islands would turn out in similar numbers, if given the ability to vote on the issue.
People against incorporation worried creating a new city would increase taxes and that not enough people supported the movement. Avant says property taxes would have decreased from 4.99 to 4.130 mills.
O.C.. Welch has been a critic since the beginning.
“People don’t want that out there,” he said. “Same with Skidaway Island. They didn’t want that out there. It’s not going to benefit anybody at all. It never was. It never will. It’s definitely over with.”
In a joint statement, Sen. Watson and Rep. Petrea said the following:
“During the last legislative session, we allowed for a thorough vetting of the issue of incorporation by the people of the Chatham Islands of Wilmington, Whitmarsh, Talahi and Oatland.
We announce today that we will not pass any measure allowing for a vote on incorporation of the Chatham Islands. The citizens of these islands have expressed their objection to incorporation. Indeed, over 50 percent of the citizens of Oatland Island alone have expressed objection.
The proposed cityhood measure fails to reach unanimous approval from all islands involved. Accordingly, there will be no movement on this bill during the 2020 legislative session.”
“Jesse Petrea did not end this matter,” said Avant. “It’s undecided! It will have to come again in the future. A vote ‘yes or no’ would have decided this issue once and for all.”