Peaceful Island in Dispute Nassau: Development or State-Owned Park? Future of the Land Is in Question

By Schaefers, Allison | The Florida Times Union, August 11, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Peaceful Island in Dispute Nassau: Development or State-Owned Park? Future of the Land Is in Question


Schaefers, Allison, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Allison Schaefers, Nassau Neighbors staff writer

Just a few minutes' boat ride from Egan's Creek Marina is Martin's Island, a tranquil roost for the white and spoonbill Ibis that hunt dinner in the marsh and tidal pools.

Visitors to the island are greeted by shrill cries as the birds rise, their movement ruffling the calm, mirror-like water.

The 105-acre island, surrounded by marsh and shaded by oak trees feathered with Spanish moss, is home to armadillos, raccoons, squirrels, wild boar, rattlesnakes and deer. A watchdog named Woody, left by potential developers, is about the only sign that life on the island is changing.

Woody won't always be alone. The island, between the Jolly and Bells rivers, northeast of the Blackrock community, could become either an exclusive multi-million-dollar residential playground for the wealthy, or a state-owned ecotourism attraction overseen by Fort Clinch State Park.

In the 1800s, before the Civil War, a farmhouse occupied the island's highest point, from which its owners could look over their rice and indigo crops. But the farmhouse is long gone and it has been almost 100 years since Mary Hardee, who purchased the island in 1869, or her descendants have lived there. Hardee descendants sold the land in 1981 to a group of investors including Bill Kavanaugh, owner of Tiger Point Marina. The property changed hands again when it was sold to real estate developers Bill Fields and Furman O. Clark Jr. of Fields Clark Holdings, which is based in Fernandina Beach and Kitty Hawk, N.C.

From the northwest corner of Martin's Island there's a view of Cumberland Island National Seashore and St. Marys, Ga. Far into the distance is Interstate 95, but the fast-moving cars are specks.

Martin's Island is accessible only by boat or plane. Extending utilities from the mainland to the island would require an elaborate underwater piping system.

But that didn't deter Fields and Clark from launching plans to develop the property. Preservationists would rather the island be left undisturbed, and they hope the state will buy it. But if the state doesn't purchase the island, the development corporation plans to transform the island into 56 single-family lots, Clark said.

"We saw this island and we knew it would be a great challenge to develop. It was definitely out of the box, but that's what made us want to do it."

Their enthusiasm so far has spurred 24 people, including an unidentified country music star, to reserve building lots for second homes on the island.

Clark's dream was to build a community of second homeowners whose residences celebrated the environment. The homes would have been limited in size and built of wood materials.

"Our idea was to make it as environmentally friendly as possible," he said.

But after opposition from the Nassau County chapter of the Sierra Club, Fields and Clark are having second thoughts about the project and are considering selling it to the state for the right price.

"We broke the No. 1 rule of developing; we fell in love with our own project," Clark said. "There are probably many other properties in this area that are more suitable for development."

A state land-acquisition committee recommended in April that the property be purchased along with nearby Tiger and Little Tiger islands as part of the Florida Forever program.

"There's a lot of support for this project, but not enough funding," said Callie DeHaven, planning manager for Florida's Office of Environmental Services Division of State Lands. DeHaven said the project was placed on the state's "B" list, well below an "A" list of 26 projects that the state cannot fund, she said.

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