About 75 members of St. James Church, the native islander community and Baygall, Palmetto Hall and Port Royal property owners gathered at the church Sunday afternoon to protest plans to extend the runway and cut trees at the Hilton Head Island Airport.
Supporters and members of the church on Beach City Road, which lies under the flight path of planes landing and taking off from the airport, say the runway expansion threatens the native island church, the Gullah-Geechee culture and the future of area residents and businesses.
Supporters scrapped plans to meet underneath one of the church's oldest live oaks -- set to be trimmed for flight safety -- and march down Beach City Road to the entrance of the airport because of the chilly weather. Instead, attendees gathered inside the church as various community leaders and representatives from local property owners associations spoke in opposition to the runway expansion. The St. James congregation dates back to about 1860, and the church is next to a planned educational and interpretive park at Mitchelville, the site of the nation's first freed-slave village.
Dr. Ben Williams, a Hilton Head Plantation resident, told the crowd the people of the island "must save their history from oblivion."
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"The airport encroaches on areas that are sacred and leaves us no choice but to oppose it vigorously," Williams said. "For years, the generosity of this church has been spread throughout this community. We are here to express the peoples' views and hope our elected representatives are listening."
Charles Young, chairman and deacon at St. James, said the rally was intended to convince the wider community to oppose runway extension and tree removal.
He urged attendees to contact their elected representatives and asked for the support of the island's residents. Church officials plan to hold another rally in April, Young said.
"We feel we have a vital part to play in this community," he said.