Part New Jersey, part Delaware, the marshy Baja is all a no man's land

December 16, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PENNSVILLE, N.J. -- In November 1987, Pennsville police found the body of a 45-year-old hunter in a marshy, unpopulated stretch along the Delaware River south of here known as The Baja. The man had been shot in the head, but the New Jersey authorities couldn't touch the body.

In the same area, for generations, local youths have used drugs and alcohol without fear of arrest. Cars have been abandoned, stripped or burned in The Baja after they were stolen from this Salem County town, police say.

Hunters have bagged deer and ducks there, out of season. Although The Baja borders a wildlife refuge, no one arrested them.

The Killcohook Coordination Area, a 1,468-acre morass of dirt paths, foxtail and dredged dirt formed by the Army Corps of Engineers, wasn't intended to be used this way. But police have been unable to patrol the edge of this wild westernmost territory of New Jersey -- The Baja -- because those 580 acres of Killcohook are actually part of Delaware.

"It's Delaware, but it's our problem," Pennsville Patrolman Michael J. O'Brien said. "It's our kids down there. . . . When they steal a car for a joy ride, that's where they take it to strip it and burn it. That's the first place we'll look for a stolen car.

"Anything the kids do, that's the place to do it. It's always been. Fromparking to drugs to alcohol. . . . And just about every spring or fall, there's a major arson fire."

The hunter's death was eventually ruled a suicide -- by Delaware authorities. He was a Delawarean on Delaware land.

"It was 10 feet across the state line," Patrolman O'Brien recalled. "We had to call the Delaware coroner's office, 'cause nobody here could touch it."

The incident provides a graphic example of the confusion that hasafflicted Killcohook since the Army bought it in 1925 and began pumping in dredged material from the deepening of the Delaware River for navigation.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Killcohook as one of the first migratory bird refuges on the Atlantic Coast. Seven years later, a federal report counted tens of thousands of mallard, black duck, pintail and teal.

But the Corps of Engineers kept pumping in mud and silt -- about amillion cubic yards a year. At some point -- no one seems to know exactly when -- the land mass created by the dredge material began to grow above the river's low-water mark that delineates the boundary between New Jersey and Delaware.

The waterfowl population shrank. The partying increased.

The change in the low-water line also added to the boundary confusion between the two states.

Robert R. Jordan, chairman of the Delaware State Boundary Commission, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1934 in favor of Delaware's claim to the low-water mark on the New Jersey side. British courts had ruled 200 years earlier that the entire riverbed within 12 miles of New Castle, Del., belonged to Delaware.

Constance Cooper of the Historical Society of Delaware said a king's grant had established the 12-mile radius in 1681, but the Supreme Court ruled that the low-water mark was the boundary.

Although the Supreme Court handed down the last word on the boundary, enforcement in The Baja has been haphazard at best.

"We do not perform law enforcement in the area," said Barry D. Leatherman, assistant chief of the navigation branch for the Army Corps' Philadelphia district.

Local officials are not happy.

"The Army Corps of Engineers takes no responsibility for anything," said Bernard Sennstrom, Pennsville's deputy mayor.

"They are the most obstinate, stubborn people that I've ever come across. They have absolutely no consideration for municipalities and their problems in dealing with the messes and creations of the Corps of Engineers."

Patrolman O'Brien, the Pennsville patrolman, said that for many years local officers called Delaware State Police about crime in The Baja. It took up to an hour for troopers to make their way over the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

That, and the 1987 death of the hunter, prompted Pennsville police to ask New Jersey Assemblyman John J. Collins for help.

Mr. Collins contacted Delaware officials, and in April 1989 Delaware Secretary of State Michael Harkins joined him in announcing that Pennsville police could enforce New Jersey laws over Delaware territory at Killcohook.

But Pennsville police remain reluctant to venture into the unpaved Baja. Police Chief Louis A. Berge said his department had no cars equipped to do so.

"We really can't control the situation down there," he said. "It's all reeds and soft, dirt roads that change a lot. We've gotten a few patrol cars stuck down there."

Richard J. Guadagno, assistant manager of the adjacent Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, stood on a dike in The Baja one day last month and watched a young couple kick up sand and gravel with an all-terrain vehicle. Mr. Guadagno, whose job is to maintain the pristine nature of the wildlife refuge, shrugged his shoulders.

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