Group's persistence turns Cecil island into a refuge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GARRETT ISLAND -- Over its long history, this rocky mound in the middle of the Susquehanna River has been a trading post, a fishing community, a quarry and an icehouse.

And a few years ago, it seemed destined to become home to a hotel and conference center. But two local residents pooled their money, bought the island from a developer, and waited for local government to preserve it as a park.

It took five years, an act of Congress and a presidential signature, but Garrett Island is now officially preserved. Last month, the nonprofit Conservation Fund bought the mile-long, 189-acre island. The group will turn over ownership of the island to the federal government's National Wildlife Refuge System, enabling Garrett to live on as a bird sanctuary where the Chesapeake Bay begins.

"There aren't many of these left," Harford County preservationist Grace Hiter said while touring the island this month. "And once they're gone, they're gone forever. You don't get them back."

Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay boasts dozens of islands -- some large expanses of marsh, others eroding so quickly that there is scarcely anything left.

Garrett Island doesn't face such threats. It's rocky, not marshy. And instead of eroding, the island has gained about 20 acres in the past century. To those who pass it on Interstate 95 as they head north from Harford County, it hardly seems like an island because it sits so close to the shore.

To the northeast, Garrett looks less like Maryland and more like Maine -- all rocky shores covered with oyster shells. To the west, Garrett faces what resembles the outskirts of a Pennsylvania mill town, including a quarry and rusty railroad bridge. The south side looks most like Maryland -- visitors can see the Chesapeake Bay and waterfront townhouses along the shore.

What really endangered the island, according to locals, was a lack of support from government officials.

More than 100 years ago, the B&O; railroad bought Garrett Island -- a one-time volcano that is named for the railroad's first president-- to build a train bridge that runs parallel to I-95. The railroad needed the island only for the bridge and leased out the rest.

In 1997, Pennsylvania developer Ed Abel called CSX, which had inherited the island, and asked whether it was for sale. The railroad sold it to Abel for $250,000.

Abel planned to build a hotel and conference center on the island. Local environmentalists, concerned that a slots bill could pave the way for an island casino, let Abel know they wanted to buy it. In 2000, Abel sold the island to Harford County farmer Peter Jay for $750,000 -- three times what Abel paid but a lot less than another developer would have offered. Jay signed the paperwork within hours, though he didn't have the cash and hadn't told his wife.

Jay, a former Sun editorial columnist, was then president of the Harford Land Trust and figured it would raise the money for the island. But the trust's charter prohibits it from preserving land in other counties, Jay said. So he called Bill Kilby, a dairy farmer who runs the Cecil County Land Trust. With the help of a $50,000 donation from Abel, the trust raised about $200,000. Jay also called Perryville marina owner Gary Pensell, who became the third owner.

The trio then set about trying to transfer the property to a local government or education group. Havre de Grace flirted with annexing the island. So did Perryville. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation talked about buying it. But in the end, they all passed.

Worse, some Cecil County officials ridiculed the men for buying the property. Former state Sen. Walter M. Baker said in news accounts that the island was nothing but a "hole" inhabited by snakes, and that no tax money should be spent to bail out the misguided "do-gooders." And Cecil County Commissioner Harry A. Hepbron was quoted as saying that a proposed federal takeover of the island would be a waste of taxpayer money.

"We thought we were doing a good thing and would be widely hailed for our efforts," Pensell said. "It didn't quite turn out that way."

The three turned to Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who helped hatch a plan for the Conservation Fund to buy the island and turn it over to the refuge system. But refuge system officials testified that they didn't want the island because it was far from the other state refuges and would present a management headache.

Undeterred, the congressman lobbied his colleagues to establish an island refuge where migratory birds could land undisturbed by development. In November 2003, President Bush signed into law a bill authorizing Garrett Island to become part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which is under the U.S. Department of Interior.

The Conservation Fund paid $550,000 for the island, enough to pay back Jay and Pensell. The land trust donated its share.

Gilchrest chuckled at the memory of Baker's comments, particularly when he said the island was full of snakes.

"That description may not be appealing to a person who dislikes the outdoors, but it is very appealing to tundra swans and Canada geese," he said. "It's their motel. It's their diner. It's their gas station."

Garrett Island will join the system as one of six island refuges overseen by manager Martin Kaehny, who is stationed at Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall.

Kaehny said managing the island would be hard because it's far from other properties and the refuge system still grapples with budget cuts.

"This is a piece of land that really should be protected. But I don't think the National Refuge System is the best angle for it," he said.

Now that the system has it, though, Kaehny said his staff would do its best to ensure it would remain open to the public.

As they toured the island recently, Kilby and Jay said they never doubted the island would be saved. As farmers, they are used to being patient and were willing to wait -- to a point.

"If the only way we could have gotten our money back was to sell it to Donald Trump for a vacation home, we would have done that," Jay said. "But this is a much better outcome."

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