When the Taxi Arrives by Water

Published: July 4, 1993
(Excerpts taken from original article)

FOG hovered over Long Island Sound as the tiny ferry putt-putted past Potato Island. The old Victorian homes on the neighboring islands -- Wheeler, Governor, Rogers, Money -- were shrouded by the ghostly gray mist. The nearby shoreline and the Stony Creek dock were all but invisible.

It's the fog, blinding banks that roll in regularly, that poses one of the biggest challenges to living in the Thimbles, a rocky archipelago of 23 inhabited islands scattered off Branford, Conn., just east of New Haven, 85 miles from New York City. Residents of the 95 homes in the Thimbles say that should it become foggy past sunset while you're visiting someone else's island, the safest move is not to move; consider yourself an overnight guest.

Apart from the fog, though, there is little difference between mainland life and living in comparable quarters on a single-family Thimble Island, like one-acre Potato Island, or 0.75-acre Wheeler Island. (Or a larger, subdivided island like the 10-acre Governor Island, which has 17 homes on its 10 acres and is semi-famous as the summer residence of Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist, and Jane Pauley, the television journalist.)

Little difference, that is, except for the cisterns; many of the homes here were built around the turn of the century and do not have running water. Residents collect rain in tanks and use old-fashioned pitcher pumps for cooking and bathing. Then there are the kerosene lamps and propane generators; electricity exists only on a few islands. There's also the isolation; telephone service is available (and costs twice as much) on most of the islands, but there is no cable television, no mail delivery, and a trip into Stony Creek for provisions takes about 5 to 10 minutes on a ferry that costs $2. (A trash boat does come by once a week; it even picks up recyclables.)

Private islands in the New York metropolitan region are the most rarefied of residential properties. "Most of what we have on the East Coast is in Maine or in the Florida Keys," said Michael Bastian, a spokesman for Sotheby's International Realty in Manhattan, which often sells such property.

APART from the Thimbles -- named for thimbleberries, not for their tiny size -- there are the Norwalk Islands, off Norwalk, Conn., where nine homes are situated on five islands; Clam and Green Islands, two dots off Branford that are not part of the Thimbles; another Clam Island, off the North Fork of Long Island; Arshamomaque Island, an 18-acre heavily wooded island that sits in the middle of a creek at Southold, L.I., and three-acre North Dumpling Island, between Fishers Island and Noank, Conn.

"Living on an island is an adventure -- when you get off the boat, you forget about everything," said Joe Piscitelli, a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker in Milford, Conn., who six months ago sold the crown jewel of the Thimbles, 12-acre Rogers Island (and its pink 23-room Tudor-style mansion, six-hole golf course and tennis courts) for $2.65 million to Richard and Harriet DeMato, a Manhattan couple who work in textile manufacturing.

"It's simple and romantic," he added. "People who come out here, they want to get out of New York and leave everything behind."

Despite their rarity, private island homes in the New York area often cost considerably less than prospective buyers might imagine, often less than $400,000.

Indeed, because of the inconveniences, high maintenance expenses and the need for a boat and dockage, they usually cost less than comparable properties with a prime waterfront location.

There are other bargains available. Wheeler Island in the Thimbles is being offered for $525,000 and probably can be had for as little as $395,000, according to Mr. Piscitelli.

Wheeler Island has a 130-year old Victorian cottage, with eight bedrooms on three floors and a wraparound porch. There are also two docks, a stone pier, deep water mooring and ample accommodation for winter boat storage. The island is being sold by the Cobb family, which has owned it for six generations, because it cannot afford the upkeep and repairs.

"It really needs to be overhauled," said Mary Cobb, whose great-grandfather bought the island in 1883.

SHOWERING consists of heating up pots of water and pouring them over your head. "I live in Branford, so I take a shower before I come out," Ms. Cobb said.

A short cruise away is another Thimble Island for sale: Potato Island. The home here, a 10-room, seven-bedroom Gambrel Colonial, is much less rustic. The 1.1-acre island, which is being offered for $995,000, is as flat and manicured as a greensward.

"These are second homes for a lot of these people," Mr. Piscitelli said. "The owners tend to have either inherited the property or they are people who have a real sense of adventure."

Islanders are a special breed. Joel Helander, for example, is the author of a history about Falkners Island, a wildlife refuge off Guilford, Conn., and he wanted his own island so badly that for $5,000 he bought Goose Island, an eighth-of-an acre (at high water) crop of rocks that curves around like a goose's neck and, until it was denuded by the Hurricane of 1938, had a small home on it.

Today, the only structure on Goose Island is an American flag on a 21-foot cedar pole that Mr. Helander planted in cement.

"My first reason for buying Goose Island was preservation and conservation of the seal population in winter, the gray seals and harbor seals, which are becoming more and more indigenous to Long Island Sound, and the double-crested cormorants, which had not been seen in Connecticut prior to 1982," he said. "This year, there are about 150 nests there."

Building on a private island, though, can challenge architects and builders not only with logistical and technical difficulties but also with a battery of bureaucratic paperwork and permits.

In 1987, Robert Wortmann of Upper Saddle River, N.J., bought Green Island, 1,000 feet off the Indian Neck section of Branford, for $340,000. Because the home on the island was too small for his family, he then spent $650,000, including $8,000 on a helicopter to fly in and help mount construction materials, to erect a 4,000-square-foot contemporary-style home with a 25-foot-high windowed wall facing Long Island Sound.

By the time the home was completed last summer, approvals had been granted by no less than 11 agencies ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to the Coastal Area Management and Shellfish Commission and the Branford Building and Engineering Department.

THE biggest complication, according to the home's architect, Duo Dickinson of Madison, Conn., was hooking up a waste line with the town's sewage system. Most island homes have septic tanks. "We had to go through clamming beds to do that, and, in fact, and even though it sounds heinously anti-environmental, in truth it was the best thing we could have done for the environment," he said, adding that a septic system on the island would have leached partly treated sewage into the Sound.

Other problems abound for people interested in buying private island real estate. Storms are a threat, as they are for waterfront property. And vandals often plague island properties in the off season, when police boats stop making their rounds.

Further, bankers will seldom make a mortgage on such properties; insurance can be difficult to obtain, and in all but the rarest instances the homes can only be used in summer -- not only because of the lack of heat, insulation and fresh water but also because of the arduousness of commuting by boat in winter. In the Thimble Islands, for example, the ferry service operates only from April to November, and Stony Creek residents still recall 1978, when the Sound froze so hard that it was possible to walk out to some of the islands.

Even so, some homeowners in the Thimbles are adding electricity and winterizing, or they are seriously considering it. "It won't be long," Mr. Piscitelli said, "before you start seeing a year-round community out here."

Joseph Piscitelli
Joseph Piscitelli
171 Broad Street Milford CT 06460