Island in Susquehanna is for sale again

Owners fail to get officials to pledge to fund public park

March 17, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A rocky, forested island in the mouth of the Susquehanna River that was bought nearly a year ago to spare it from development is back on the market, its owners say, because state and local officials have shown no interest in spending public funds to preserve it.

The Cecil Land Trust, a local land-conservation group, patched together $750,000 in loans and investments last year to buy Garrett Island from a Pennsylvania developer. The developer had wanted to build a hotel and conference center there to take advantage of its panoramic view of the river and the upper Chesapeake Bay.

Bill Kilby, a Cecil dairy farmer who heads the trust, said his group had wanted the 189-acre island to become a public park and an outdoors environmental classroom. But the trust has been unable to get pledges from the state or Cecil County to buy it or help the private investors recoup their money.

So the trust and its partners decided this month to put the island up for sale, though Kilby says the group has no plans to list the property with an agent or broker.

"I'm just a little confused and disheartened about it," Kilby said recently. "I'm not sure what I did wrong. It seemed straightforward at the start."

The narrow, mile-long island was owned for more than a century by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which named it for one of its presidents and used it to support a bridge across the river. The U.S. 40 highway bridge also crosses over the island.

Before the railroad bought it, the island had been occupied by Native Americans, farmed by English settlers, then used for processing the upper bay's once-bountiful harvests of shad. In recent years, it has been a hangout and campsite for local boaters.

Concern for the island's fate surfaced in 1997, when CSX Corp., the B&O's successor, sold it to a York, Pa., developer for $250,000. Seeking to preserve the island for public use, the trust formed a partnership with Peter A. Jay, a Harford County farmer, and with the owner of a local marina to acquire the tract last spring.

In the past year, the island's owners say, they have organized community cleanups of trash littering the island and have ferried hundreds of visitors there to clamber around its 114-foot granite peak and enjoy the views.

One visitor was Don Baugh, vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who says the island appears to be well-suited for teaching children and adults about the ecology of the bay. "You're right there where fresh water meets the Chesapeake Bay," Baugh said. "It really is kind of neat."

Kilby said his appeals to put the island into public ownership have received a cold shoulder from Cecil officials and encouragement but no commitments from state officials. "There's a reluctance for anyone to take the lead on this," he said.

One of Cecil's three commissioners is Kilby's wife, Phyllis, but the other two say they oppose spending public funds to buy the island. "As far as I'm concerned, the property already has protection from development," said Nelson Bolender, the commissioners' president. The land is zoned for open space, he noted, which bars building anything but a retirement home there.

Harry Hepbron, the third commissioner, contends that the island has little value as a park because it is accessible only by boat. "I was a farmer," Hepbron said. "I love open space, and I like protecting farms. I just don't like taking taxpayers' money and buying something that nobody's going to get any use out of anyway."

State officials apparently are reluctant to buy the island because they do not believe it is worth what the group paid for it.

"We remain interested in helping the local land trust protect that exceptional piece of property," Mike Nelson, assistant natural resources secretary, said recently, "but it has to be at a price that can be supported by the state of Maryland, and we're not there yet."

A real estate appraiser hired by the land trust said the island would be worth $688,000 if as many as nine homes could be built on it. That would be the maximum number allowed under the state's critical-area limits on bay shoreline development, though it would require a change in the local zoning.

Nelson indicated that state officials have reservations about that appraisal, though he would not discuss them. The state has a policy of paying no more than fair market value for land, Nelson said, though he acknowledged recent exceptions for ecologically sensitive forestland in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

The state had a chance to buy the island four years ago, when the railroad was preparing to sell it to the Pennsylvania developer. But state officials balked at matching the developer's price then because the state's appraisal at the time said the island was worth $140,000.

Kilby said the land trust wanted to place a conservation easement on the island to prevent development, but it needed to buy out the other owners first. The trust put up $100,000 toward the purchase.

Kilby said this week that a state official recently sought a meeting with the trust but that "it didn't seem like they were interested in trying to come up with the money we needed." The trust dropped its option to buy out the other two investors.

The island's owners probably won't market it until September, Kilby said, to allow time to complete an archaeological dig seeking the remains of a 17th-century fort and trading post said to have been built there.

The two opposing county commissioners say they don't fear losing the island to development. "It's been there since the beginning of time, since God created it, and it's not going nowheres," said Hepbron.

The island's owners say it might look like a pile of rocks and trees to locals who peer down at it from the U.S. 40 bridge but that there have been feelers from potential buyers. Jay said none of the island's owners wants to see it developed but that they might have no choice if they want to recover their investment.

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