Havre de Grace officials are set to consider a plan to annex Garrett Island, a historical patch of land in the middle of the Susquehanna River, to head off any move toward developing the land.
Once owned by a railroad company, Garrett Island was sold in the late 1990s to developers, sparking a grass-roots effort to protect it. The island was bought by a Harford farmer and Cecil businessman, but they say the time has come for them to recoup their investment, and they hope the city will step in.
In the next four to six weeks, lawyers for the island's current owners, Peter Jay of Havre de Grace and Gary Pensell of Perryville, are expected to petition the City Council to annex the island, and the council is expected to vote quickly on the proposal.
Last year, the owners requested that Havre de Grace consider annexing the island, and David Craig, the mayor of Havre de Grace, said he does not plan to sit back and watch the island become developed.
"I want to preserve the island in its present state," Craig said. "It's a significant part of our viewscape."
The island encompasses about 189 acres; it is about a mile and a half wide, and its topography rises to 115 feet above sea level in a granite dome that represents the magma chamber of an ancient volcano. There are small populations of ducks and deer and a large number of hardwoods, including tulip, cherry and beech trees.
"It's not your normal Chesapeake island," Jay said. "Its topography and geology is very different compared to other islands."
The island has also been the subject of congressional legislation, sponsored by Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, to designate the island a wildlife refuge.
Last year, Gilchrest introduced legislation to include Garrett Island as a refuge in the Susquehanna National Wildlife Refuge Expansion Act, but that bill died with adjournment of Congress.
The congressman reintroduced the bill Jan. 8, and hearings were held last week, according to Gilchrest's office.
"The bill would prevent development and protect the wildlife. He wants to provide the island with permanent protection from development," according to the congressman's office.
Interest in the island's fate rose in 1997, when CSX Corp. sold it to Ed Abel, a developer from York, Pa., for $250,000. Concerns that the island might be subdivided led Garrett Island LLC - headed by Gary Pensell, a Perryville resident who is semiretired and owner of Tidewater Marina - and Peter Jay, a farmer from Havre de Grace, to acquire the property for $750,000 in an effort to preserve it.
Pensell and Jay initially hoped that Cecil Land Trust, a Cecil County preservation group, would be able to buy the island. But in three years, the trust has raised about $196,000, enough to buy only a share of the island, which has been appraised at $550,000 to $650,000, land trust officials say.
"Our interest is in seeing the island protected, having public access, and getting most of our money back," Pensell said.
From the beginning, Jay said, preservation has been his and Pensell's motivation. "The initial plan was naive; we thought it was such a wonderful opportunity and that there would be interest in ownership soon, but that didn't work," he said.
The next best route, he said, was that Cecil Land Trust would buy their holdings.
Bill Kilby, a dairy farmer in Perryville and president of Cecil Land Trust, said the most recent appraisals value the island at $550,000 to $650,000. The trust would need at least $500,000 to buy out Jay and Pensell.
The two partners are getting anxious because they need to pay back their portion of money, Kilby said. "We can't leave our money in it forever," Jay said.
Jay and Pensell also looked to Cecil County for support, but county officials made it clear they were not interested in the property, Pensell said.
"There was openness and receptiveness, but once former Sen. [Walter M.] Baker said the island had no value, the whole atmosphere changed," said Phyllis Kilby, vice president of the Board of Cecil County Commissioners.
The situation deteriorated from there. The county has not been interested in the island and only began showing interest when Havre de Grace wanted to annex it, Kilby said. "They don't understand this island, and there isn't a willingness to understand it," Kilby said.
On the other hand, Nelson Bolender, president of the Board of Cecil County Commissioners, said he felt left in the dark about Garrett island. "They [the owners] are assuming we don't have the money, so they won't meet with us," Bolender said. Bolender said the island is protected as open space.
Surveying the island
However, Kilby said, there are ways to develop the land even if it's open space. "The island is not protected," she said, because open space can be used in various ways, including fishing, forestry, agriculture, retirement housing and golf courses.