For the right loot, a treasured island

Dobbins: Along the Magothy River, a landmass with a colorful past of gold and goats is reluctantly put up for sale.

October 27, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

DOBBINS ISLAND - These steep, sandstone cliffs form the great memory bank of the Magothy River, holding within them centuries-old tales of buried treasure and budding romance.

Throughout history, boaters have flocked to this crescent-shaped wisp of land across from Pasadena where an 18th-century Dutch ship reportedly wrecked and wild goats once roamed.

As the shoreline around it rapidly develops, Dobbins Island has remained unchanged, the sort of place where a newcomer could be forgiven for half-expecting TV's Gilligan to emerge from the carpet of greenery for a marshmallow roast.

But now the long-uninhabited island, too, may be changing.

Longtime Anne Arundel County residents Jim and Edward Wilson, who bought the island three years ago, are selling it. Priced at $950,000 - about half of what the brothers were asking a year ago - the island may land in a private developer's hands by year's end.

"It has stayed in a different era, but everything else has changed," said Peggy Penniman, great-great-granddaughter of George W. Dobbin, who bought the land in 1853 for a family retreat. "It's one of the things that I think is still special about this place and ultimately what was so hard about keeping it."

With its curved harbor a natural spot for mooring boats, the 7-acre island has long been a weekend destination. It is thought to be one of the only inhabitable islands off Maryland's Western Shore.

Atop the bluffs sit a tangle of trees and a nature path, which winds around to an old well that is filled with water year-round. From a distance, the trees look like willowy palms, creating an effect that is more South Pacific than north Annapolis.

"It's a treasure. It's part of Maryland's history," said Kathy Lundvall, a RE/MAX real estate agent who is marketing the property. "Anyone who wants to buy an island, they better step forward right away."

The Wilsons bought the island as part of a package deal from Dobbin family heirs. It included shorefront known as Grays Point and a nearby property, Little Island. They quickly found a buyer for Grays Point. A local builder bought Little Island, constructing a white house with a lighthouse replica attached and using a hovercraft to reach the shore.

Hopes for a park

The Wilson brothers hoped that a government agency or environmental group would buy Dobbins, a de facto boater's park about 2,700 feet from shore. The island is popular for its 4,000 feet of shoreline, 1,000 feet of beach and 50-foot cliffs.

The volunteer-run Magothy River Land Trust was interested in buying and preserving the property, but it did not have the staff to protect the island, nor could it persuade the federal government to make it part of a park system. The state and Anne Arundel declined, too, pointing to liability concerns.

"The Department of Natural Resources is not interested in purchasing it, protecting it or preserving it. From our perspective, it presents a patrolling and enforcement headache," said DNR spokeswoman Heather Lynch.

The brothers reduced the island's price to factor in the cost of erosion control - a must for a homeowner because the island has lost about 5 acres since the 1700s. The island can be protected with stone, as Little Island is - but those familiar with the island say such work may cost close to a million dollars.

Even without any erosion controls, the brothers said, the island has changed little since they played on its shores 35 years ago. Tropical Storm Isabel destroyed many houses and trees on the Magothy's shores, but it barely touched Dobbins. "It looks absolutely like it did when I was a kid. It's always been charmed, and it still is," said Edward Wilson, who runs a small real estate investment firm from his Annapolis home. "So, if Isabel couldn't wear down Dobbins, where's the big worry?"

Others familiar with the property believe a homeowner would have difficulty keeping out regular weekend visitors. But Little Island was once a boating destination, and three large howling dogs keep the curious at bay.

Jim Wilson is so fond of the place, which his children call "Monkey Island," that he hasn't been in a rush to market it, hoping someone will step up to preserve it as a public park.

Buried treasure

Peggy Penniman knows all about the attachment to what nearby residents still call "Dutch Ship Island," after a treasure ship that supposedly sank there in the mid-1700s. According to Marianne Taylor's My River Speaks: The History and Lore of the Magothy River, early residents collected Dutch coins from the banks. Legend also has it that Civil War soldiers hid gunpowder and that Prohibition-era bootleggers stashed rum along its shores.

For years, the island had a caretaker, but he moved to the mainland after he had trouble getting his children to school in the winter. At that point, Dobbins' only permanent residents were goats that controlled the overgrowth. Vandals ransacked the island, setting fire to the farmhouse in the 1950s.

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