Your Own Private Island
Pitched in an open meadow like a sacrificial offering, Bill and Peterene Stanhope's tent strained against its pegs in the raw wind that whipped across Ram Island, a sixteen-acre rock where Machias Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Inside, the Stanhopes and their companions clutched the edges of the snapping polyester and listened to sleet pelt the flimsy shelter. Suddenly the wind surged and the tent blasted off, slipping from those white-knuckled fists and baring the hapless campers to horizontal sheets of stinging rain.The group dragged the sopping, deflated tent to an old sheep shed, where they jury-rigged an A-frame and huddled until the storm passed.
Surely this was not the image that Bill Stanhope, a Boston area designer, had in mind when he romanticized about buying an island back in 1969. That's when a magazine article about islands so captured his fancy that he was compelled to travel to the publication's New York offices to seek the author's advice. The writer pointed him toward the coast of Maine.
After rejecting a couple of firry islands that didn't match his fantasies, Stanhope bought Ram sight unseen based solely on its description: located two miles off Starboard, south of Machias, it rises sixty feet above the sea, a rugged mound of grasslands and granite riven by deep crevices and braced by cliffs. It has but one tree. Just stand in the center and pivot: mainland to the north, islands to the west, open ocean to the south and, to the east, a quintessential Maine lighthouse, the white granite-block tower of the nearby Libby Islands. "You are really outside on a barren island," Stanhope says. "You get a sense of the weather that you can't get sitting in your house looking out of the window."
That's for sure. Stanhope and his wife, Peterene, have spent one week camping on Ram nearly every July since they bought it for $15,000 in 1970. For every sun-filled week of memories, there is a bone-chilling gray one to match. Sometimes the fog has been so thick when they set off from Starboard that they'd inch their fifteen-foot MirroCraft through the big, gray rollers guided only by a compass and the circle of light cast by their flashlight. Every several feet they'd cut the engine and listen for breaking waves so they'd know how far they had to go.
But where others would see their blue-sky island dreams crashing with those waves, Stanhope sees mere hurdles, the leaping of which has been part of the adventure. "It was always exhilarating and wonderful," he says. "I commuted on the Southeast Expressway every day for twenty-five years. We ran a design studio with twenty-three employees, and we were revved up into a high level of work. I'd get out on the island, and it took the city right out of me. I'd just sit and watch the ocean, and all that would melt away."
Maine's jagged 3,478-mile coastline is dotted with more than 3,000 islands cloaked in spruce, wildflowers, sumac, and, frequently, fog. About 1,200 islands comprise an acre or more; roughly 600 of these, representing 95 percent of Maine's total island acreage, are owned by individuals.
It used to be that islands weren't especially difficult to acquire. Yarmouth resident Jim Kern and a friend whimsically bought Sand Island, an unbuildable beach spit between the Casco Bay islands of Great Chebeague and Cliff, for a few thousand dollars in the early 1990s after seeing it advertised in the local shopper. "The idea of owning an island intrigued me," Kern explains. "It's a unique piece of real estate." He and his friends, all boaters, while away summer weekends on Sand, playing volleyball or horseshoes and lounging under the castaways-style structure they built from silvery smooth logs, fishnets, and other artifacts tossed ashore by the sea.
Similarly, Ceil Simpson's Aunt Rose, a perpetually engaged-to-be-married woman from Beverly Hills, bought her niece a small island off Castine in the 1960s as casually as a tourist snapping up a souvenir. "She was looking out into the harbor and she said, 'My dear, that's what you need: an island,' " Simpson, of Cape Elizabeth, recalls. "I was raising three teenage boys at the time, and I said that was the last thing I needed. She said, 'Oh, yes, you do, dear. You need an island.' " Aunt Rose was right, of course. Nothing defines quality family time like camp outs on your very own island.
These days, islands are unlikely to be acquired so capriciously. Values have been climbing ever upward along with mainland coastal properties, if not quite so precipitously. Also, the number of islands on the market has declined since the mid-1990s because state and federal agencies and conservation organizations have made a concerted effort to preserve island habitat through outright purchase or conservation agreements with owners. "Conservation organizations have been involved in roughly 30 to 40 percent of the acquisitions of whole offshore islands in Maine since the late 1990s," says Jane Owen, a Harpswell real-estate appraiser who specializes in island properties. "Once an island has been purchased by a land trust, it is taken out of the inventory of islands for sale. There has always been a limited demand for islands, but now it's more concentrated."
The markets for island and mainland coastal properties are separate and distinct. "There is a whole different mentality about buying islands," Owen says. "Access is a huge issue. How are you going to get to it? Where are you going to park your car? How far away are you when it comes time to stock up on fuel and food? There are basic safety concerns. If someone gets ill, how long does it take to get to medical care? Related to access are the amenities. Can you sail your fifty-two-foot Hinckley up to the dock and walk up to the cottage? A lot of islands don't have protected deepwater mooring areas. That can be an issue if you get a strong blow."
Asking prices vary dramatically, but recent listings offer a window on the market: $1.1 million for a thirty-acre island with camp off Cundys Harbor in Harpswell; $3.25 million for a sixty-acre island with two houses, a boathouse, and sandy beaches in Addison; and $750,000 for Ram Island, which the Stanhopes are reluctantly selling now that they have retired.
Buyers tend to be adventurous, romantic, and private. "They are a different breed," says John Saint-Amour, a broker for LandVest, a marketer of luxury properties. "They have to be jacks-of-all-trades because island living is like living on a boat. All the construction equipment has to be brought to the island and taken off. All the things people take for granted on the mainland — electricity, water, septic — are things the island buyer must think about."
LandVest's well-heeled clients prefer whole-island purchases over island lots and typically favor islands with existing structures because shoreland regulations often prohibit the kinds of spectacularly sited houses that were built in the past. "There is always a demand for islands," Saint-Amour says. "We recently listed one that was the number one visited property on our Web site. We get a lot of people inquiring and dreaming, but the pool of buyers diminishes greatly once they realize the challenges. And because the demand to see islands runs with the season, an island is typically a two-year listing process. As difficult as they are to buy, it's also difficult to let them go. You're often dealing with multiple family members, and it can be a long process from the time they first express interest to when the property is actually listed. It could be weeks, but it also could be many years."
Owen reports a growing global market for large, so-called "kingdom islands," where wealthy buyers create their own private worlds. Her observation is shared by Chris Krowlow, founder of privateislandsonline.com, which boasts the largest Internet inventory of islands for sale all over the globe and receives three million visitors yearly. "The two hot spots are Maine and Florida," Krowlow says. "A buyer needs to be willing to make a real investment; it's not just a vacation place. Most buyers are male — it's a macho thing, the desire to be king of your own kingdom. We've had people ask if they can create their own country."
New York real estate mogul John Cacoulidis displayed those maverick qualities after he purchased eighty-nine-acre Hope Island in Casco Bay for $1.3 million in 1993. He radically altered the classic 1913 summer college, turning it into a twenty-room mansion, and he built a six-bedroom guest house, fourteen-stall stable, chapel, and two artificial lakes, all connected by a network of roads. Then, fed up with property taxes that had climbed from $7,000 to $39,000, Cacoulidis and his wife, Phyllis, petitioned the state legislature to let them secede from the town of Cumberland. Their bid to create the town of Hope Island (population: two) failed, but it hasn't been all bad news for the Cacoulidises. Hope will become part of the new town of Chebeague on July 1, 2007, when that community's separation from Cumberland becomes official. (So will Jim Kern's Sand Island, though Kern is a passive secessionist — Sand just appeared in Chebeague's petition package, and he hasn't objected.)
The degree to which Cacoulidis has conquered Hope is unusual, even among kingdoms. "We find people to be very sensitive," Saint-Amour says. "They want to be good land stewards. They want to spend time on the island and understand it so their dream works in congruence with the wildlife and habitat. We see the whole gamut — the people who want the thirteen-fireplace, fifteen-bedroom mansion all the way down to the basic nine-hundred-square-foot house."
You say you want to be alone? A Maine island may disappoint. "It's not as pleasant as you might think," confesses Ian Ogilvie, who shares, along with four siblings, five-acre Rock Island, part of Stonington's Merchants Row archipelago. "The island is located between two routes that the lobstermen use when they head out to fish. At about 3 a.m. they all start their engines, and at about four they start streaming by."
The Ogilvies inherited Rock, a mix of woods, bog, and fields, from their father, who bought it in the 1960s as part of a never-realized plan to expand his wilderness tour business. A kayaker, Ogilvie occasionally uses Rock as a camping base for explorations of Penobscot Bay. His siblings rarely visit. Rock receives plenty of guests, though, sometimes the worst kind. Less than a mile from Stonington, it attracts local teenagers who drink and party on the pebble beach. "They just trash it," Ogilvie says. "In summer, it's a zoo out there."
Things have been better since Ogilvie placed Rock on the Maine Island Trail, a 350-mile-long waterway that consists of state-owned and private islands available for day visits or camping. Maine Island Trail Association (MITA) volunteers periodically remove flotsam and spread a leave-no-trace message to recreational boaters. Despite the downsides of island ownership — they include $800 a year in property taxes which, Ogilvie points out, is steep for a seldom-used campsite — Ogilvie doesn't entertain selling Rock. His island erases day-to-day stresses like nothing else can. "Once you get in your kayak and put away your car keys and wallet, that part of your life is gone."
MITA was established in 1988 to manage increasing numbers of visitors by identifying those islands where they are welcome and steering them away from those where they are not. Most of the 153 islands on the trail are privately owned, and their proprietors defy the stereotype of the Garboesque island owner. "The people who own them love them, and they want to share this piece of paradise," says Karen Stimpson, MITA's executive director and herself an island owner. "They get no financial remuneration, but we guarantee that we can manage use."
Ceil Simpson, who placed her island on the trail, always left the door to her one-room cabin unlocked. A note on the table invited drop-ins to use the sleeping bags and dishes and requested they use the outhouse instead of the great outdoors. "We never lost anything from the cabin," Simpson says. "People appreciated being able to go there." Her grandchildren, who now own the island, still keep an open door.
MITA participants are committed to continuing a tradition of public access that is eroded every time an island is transformed into a private kingdom. Their islands tend to be minimally developed, if developed at all. They may have conservation agreements designed not only to protect wildlife habitat and scenic views but also to ensure that the welcome mat stays out. "We figured that if we didn't get an easement, it would be built on in the future," says Jane Arbuckle of the smallest of two islands she owns in East Penobscot Bay. "It's the island everyone loves the most. We met some people who call it 'jewel island' because it was their special place. It's that kind of experience we wanted to preserve."
The stewardship director for Maine Heritage Coast Trust, which has conserved 260 coastal islands over the past thirty years, Arbuckle has gently developed the larger island. Her camp sits in a meadow ringed by spruce because she did not want to ruin boaters' wilderness views. "Besides, you only have to walk a little way to be on the water," she says, "and if it's windy, it's a relief to get into the middle of the island. It's calm and quiet, and it's a lot less wear on the house."
Arbuckle built the camp without the aid of a contractor, bringing over everything, one small boatload at a time. "We were lucky to have a lot of friends helping," she says. "The difficulties informed the design: keep it simple." That, it is. There is a three-hole outhouse (easier to dig three shallow holes than one deep one), and Arbuckle ferries over drinking water, lamp oil, and firewood. "Sometimes I wonder, 'What am I doing? I could get so much for this island,' " she says. "Then I go out there, and I say, 'Of course! This is why.' You've got to just slow down because there are a lot of things to do and it takes time. They become part of the rhythm of the day."
The crew who built a timber frame summerhouse on a midcoast island in the 1980s worked without bulldozers, concrete mixers, and cranes because the sheer granite shoreline made landing a barge difficult. Workers wheelbarrowed bricks across a sandbar that is exposed at low tide. A helicopter delivered everything else, from lumber to drinking water for the crew, making more than 150 trips from a mainland staging area. Later, the chopper brought furniture and a birthday surprise for the owner's wife — an upright piano that was dropped onto the deck. "You have to be genetically wired a certain way to own an island," explains the owner, Bruce Poliquin. "If you're the sort of person who looks at the inconveniences as nothing more than a challenge at worse, you'll find that at best a private island is one of those things in life that is hard to find. All the manmade sounds of everyday life are gone. What you hear is the birds, the surf, no car sounds at all. The fog moves in, and suddenly you're enveloped in it. Your connection to the environment is complete and seamless."
Most island construction projects fall somewhere between Jane Arbuckle's do-it-yourself approach and Bruce Poliquin's helicopter-aided production. Contractors typically charter boats for their crews and barges for materials and machinery. A project may require construction of a dock and temporary housing for workers.
Contractors have to often manage a psychological hurdle as well. "Plumbers and electricians are very nervous about going to an island because they feel they can't respond to emergency calls," says John Ryan of Wright-Ryan Construction in Portland. "We have to make our subcontractors understand that they're not going to the end of the earth. We do whatever we can to make it more attractive. Even so, very few are willing to do repeat business."
Among Wright-Ryan's more challenging projects was Dodge Morgan's small estate on Snow Island in Harpswell's Quahog Bay. To reduce the amount of post-construction debris on Snow, the house, guest cottage, and barn were barged over in pre-built segments. Stunningly yet sparely designed by Portland architect Winton Scott, the 1,900-square-foot dwelling has no interior doors, and a shower stall window offers an unobstructed view of the main entry. After all, how many unexpected visitors is an island owner going to get?
A successful businessman who set a record for a nonstop, single-handed sail around the world in 1986, Morgan is the rare bird who lives on his island year-round and alone. He owns a small fleet that includes a fifty-three-foot sloop, thirty-foot schooner, and twenty-nine-foot workboat. Business demands that he go ashore about once a week, but it is easy to work from home, outfitted as it is with satellite Internet service and electrical power via a 4,200-foot submarine cable. A drilled well provides "perfect water," Morgan says. Heat is propane. "Winter is a challenge if the bay freezes over," Morgan acknowledges. "I have a friend who is a clam digger who owns a boat. When the bay is frozen, he acts as my taxi service."
Otherwise, Morgan regards island living as a piece of cake, and he is rarely lonesome. "The bay is a popular overnight for cruising boats, so I have plenty of company in the summer," he says. Come cocktail hour, he hops in his skiff and darts from boat to boat to say hello.
How much does it really cost?
It all depends on the island and what you plan to do with it, of course, but generally speaking, construction of a private island house will run at least 25 percent more than a comparable house on the mainland, according to John Ryan of Wright-Ryan Construction. Ryan's estimate is modest compared to that of Chris Krowlow, founder of privateislandsonline.com. "The price of an island doubles as soon as you start to develop it," Krowlow says. So while islands generally cost less than mainland coastal properties, they have higher development costs, as well as higher operating and maintenance costs.
Are we talking rustic, as in kerosene lamps and woodstoves?
Yes, if that's all you can afford. But most people who have the budget for a private island can afford the technologies that make the kingdom comfortable. Some do like Dodge Morgan, who gets his electricity delivered via a submarine cable. Solar and wind power technologies are other viable options for providing electricity to a private island home.
Water, water everywhere, but . . .
If you plan only to camp on your island, then drinking water is strictly bring-your-own. That means you have to be very well stocked unless you plan frequent trips to the mainland. If you are building a house, your investment demands you consider other options, from a rooftop rainwater collection system (vulnerable to pollution, and, of course, dependent on nature) to a well (it will cost extra to bring over that drilling rig) to a reverse osmosis system drawing seawater. Seawater desalination systems are costly, but the bottom line may be less than drilling hundreds of feet — and the water supply is limitless.
Staying in touch.
Cellular phones have made it easier for islanders to stay in touch with the rest of the world, but their reliability depends on the location of the nearest transmitter tower. Satellite service is another, more expensive, possibility. Or you could do without. Isn't that infernal ringing one of the things you're trying to escape?
Do I need a boat?
Not necessarily. For several years, Bill and Peterene Stanhope paid a local lobsterman to drop them off on Ram Island and pick them up at the end of the week. They got to be very good at packing.
What do I do with my car?
The value of an island property increases if it comes with a mainland easement guaranteeing the owner a place to park his car when he is on the island and to store his boat when he is off. Otherwise, you are probably looking at getting a slip at a marina, where you can also park your car. But that gets — what else? — expensive.
Can I start my own country?
No. Lithuanian-born American Michael J. Oliver has tried and failed several times to create his own country on private islands in various corners of the world, most famously in Tonga. There he dumped sand atop a coral reef and planted the flag of the Republic of Minerva, only to have it yanked out by the Tongan Army.
Can I start my own town?
You can try.