From the street, Rumsey Island's single-family homes and townhouses look like those in most other communities throughout the state. But venturing into the backyards of this southern Harford County hamlet reveals a powerboater's paradise.
About half of the 500 homes on the island have piers for mooring their powerboats in the Joppatowne Canal. From the canal, whose manmade fingers run conveniently between the back yards of many homes, homeowners can reach the Gunpowder River and the Chesapeake Bay.
The combination of affordable housing and waterfront access, especially in Harford County where a great deal of waterfront is owned by the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, has been a powerful stimulant for the area's housing market, real estate agents say.
Prices range from $100,000 to $180,000 for a quarter-acre to half-acre parcel, including between 30 feet and 75 feet of waterfront and a pier. A three-bedroom townhouse with no waterfront access can go for between $75,000 and $99,000 usually, agents say.
"This is a great place to live if you like the water," said Joseph Bossle, who has lived on the island for a year. He and his wife, Audrey, moved from the Fawn Grove area near the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, to a three-bedroom townhouse on the island. Included in the 30 feet of waterfront is a pier for his 18-foot pontoon boat, which he uses about once a week.
Trekking through the neighborhood, frequent sights include boat trailers in driveways or on the two-lane-wide side streets, or garages filled with boating goods, outboard motors, paddles, dinghies and life jackets.
"It's our little secret," said Samuel Freeman, a real estate agent for Century 21/Farley and Associates, who moors a boat on the island when he is not selling real estate there. "When people come into town and they're looking for something different, it's the first place I take them."
Although the area would seem prone to owners who visit just on weekends, most residents live "on the island," as residents say, year-round, although their visitors seem to arrive for longer visits in the summer, Freeman said.
What they experience is part of the more widely known Joppatowne, a community along U.S. 40 that began more than two centuries ago as Old Joppa, the county seat of Baltimore County from 1712 to 1768 and a shipping rival of the larger Baltimore harbor in the 1700s.
The island is named for Benjamin Rumsey, who married the widow of Col. James Maxwell, a Revolutionary War leader who lived in the area. Rumsey's marriage gave him a large, brick mansion, Rumsey Mansion, which remains and is occupied by Virginia Anderson, who runs Anderson Hardware on U.S. 40 in Joppa. The mansion and Rumsey are the namesake for the island.
Clearly, the lure of the water more than 200 years ago carries the same attraction today. But it was developer Leon Panitz who realized in the early 1960s that swampland off the Gunpowder River could be turned into waterfront housing.
To make it attractive, his company, Panitz and Brothers, built a canal with fingers running between rows of homes and heavy, concrete bulkheads that still appear new.
Panitz had planned for the community to be private, with a guard on duty at Bridge Drive, the only entrance he anticipated for the community. More than two decades later, the county opened Shore Drive, giving Rumsey Island a second entry point.
A portion of the guardhouse remains, a tribute to Panitz, who went bankrupt before the community was completed.
"It's real private around here, but I like that the neighbors are real nice," said Anna Feddon, who has lived on Rumsey Island for 14 years with her husband, John, a carpenter who works in Baltimore, and their daughter, Alissa, 9, a student at Joppatowne Elementary School. Their three-bedroom townhouse sits on quarter-acre property, abutting a wooded area.
Only one section of the island can still be developed, and it can only hold about a dozen single-family homes. In a county like Harford, where people are wary of impending development, an area where development cannot occur becomes more attractive.
The island is in an ideal location for people conducting business in Baltimore, Annapolis and Wilmington, no more than an hour's drive, or Philadelphia or Washington, no more than a two-hour drive.
"We're not in the hustle and bustle, this isn't a congested area, there are no power lines, and we have access to everything we want," Feddon said.
About 140 residents have banded together in the Rumsey Island Improvement Association, a voluntary organization that for $5 a year per home lobbies on behalf of community needs.
In recent months, typical shoreline problems have been the focus of the organization's efforts -- mosquito spraying, retrofitting storm drains to lessen runoff into the canals, and seeking county and state help with dredging of the 3-foot to 6-foot canals, according to Vernon Boblitz, president of the association and an 11-year resident.
"It's a real positive community with good people and low crime," said Boblitz, who lives in a three-bedroom townhouse with his wife, Sharon, and two children, Krista, 9, and Shawn, 5. The $70,000 house he bought in 1986 has doubled in value.
Like many island residents, Boblitz has put much more effort into his back yard than his front. He has an open patio off his family room that looks out to the canal. Down a long, wooden stairway, he has built a sitting area at water level, offering an attractive view of the canal, its assorted wildlife, as well as his 18-foot
Looking from his house to those on the other side of the road, beautiful decks, extravagant lighting marking the shoreline and water-level sitting areas line the canal and its fingers.
People spend their time in their back yards. Neighbors discuss fishing, boating and incoming storm fronts. Because the area is off the Gunpowder River, people's boats are well protected from inclement weather and flooding.
One thing not visible from the canals is sailboats. The Amtrak bridge over the Gunpowder River, at 12 feet from average water line to bridge bottom, prohibits anything larger than a powerboat, and it even restricts the sizes of those boats.
"You probably couldn't find another place like this anywhere on the East Coast," Boblitz said. "And you certainly couldn't do this so well nowadays. It's just a great place to live if you like boating and being on the water."
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 20 minutes
Public schools: Joppatowne High, Magnolia Middle, Joppatowne Elementary
Shopping: Joppatowne Plaza, Woodbridge Center, Woodbridge Station, Edgewater Shopping Center
Points of interest: Rumsey Mansion, Robert Copenhaver Park, Mariner Point Park, Gunpowder Falls State Park
ZIP code: 21085
Average price of a single-family home: $146,500*
* Based on six sales in the last 12 months by the Metropolitan Regional Information System.
Pub Date: 9/14/97