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For Sale: One Island, Uninhabited

Owner hopes land will remain in natural state
by David Desjardins, Globe Staff

November 26, 2006

ARLINGTON -- The listing for sale of a 2-acre island in the middle of Spy Pond has residents and officials buzzing about what will happen to one of the town's few remaining pieces of unspoiled open space.

A haven for waterfowl and a destination for canoers, Elizabeth Island has been owned for 45 years by Elaine Sacco, whose home sits roughly 100 feet away on the shore of Spy Pond. Sacco has taken care of the island all that time, rowing over to it periodically and removing trash there, but she says it is time for someone else to take over stewardship. Griffin Properties is marketing the island for Sacco, with a listing price of $999,000.

"My first choice is to keep it natural, and I think it's going to happen, but I'm not going to give it away," said Sacco. "I'm getting along in years, and I could use the money. I don't want the responsibility anymore. I'm getting too old to row over there and haul away trash from the island."

What uses any prospective buyer could make of the island are unclear. Sacco said her deed to the land states that two houses may be built on the island. William Hartford, a salesman for Griffin, said, "We've had all sorts of inquiries about different uses for the island," from putting up tennis courts to constructing a house with a helipad.

However, according to Kevin O'Brien, the town's director of planning, development options are limited. "It's residentially zoned, but it doesn't meet the criteria for a residence." He said town zoning bylaws require residences to have 60 feet of frontage on a street to allow service by utility and emergency vehicles.

The listing for the property says it "offers a myriad of possibilities," but also notes that the land is being sold "as is" and that the "buyer is responsible for all due diligence matters." The island has no connection to town water and sewer and to electricity.

"I don't think that anyone would pay $999,000 for it," O'Brien said, "but nobody should."

Brian Rehrig, treasurer of the Arlington Land Trust, said Elizabeth Island has long been considered environmentally important; roughly 15 years ago, he said, the MDC's (Metropolitan District Commission, a predecessor of the Department of Conservation and Recreation) prioritized list of parcels for acquisition for conservation ranked the island third among several hundred properties.

He said the land trust has been negotiating with Sacco to try to keep the island undeveloped.

"She's made it clear that her preference is to see the island preserved in its natural state," Rehrig said. "She and her family feel that it is an important natural resource that is important visually and environmentally."

There is "zero" likelihood, Rehrig said, that the town would pay the asking price, but he thinks the land trust could broker an agreement that would keep the island as is and still satisfy Sacco.

"There are tools available from nonprofits like the land trust that might help her sell the property in ways that are tax-advantaged, and we are exploring those options with her and her attorney." Such a deal, he said, might include a payment to Sacco from a combination of state, private, and town funding sources.

"She's testing the waters by listing her property," Rehrig said. "I applaud her for doing that, because it will help her, the town, and the state get a realistic picture of the land's value."

Over the past 21 years, the island has been used as a launching ground for fireworks displays held during Town Day each fall; the town pays Sacco for that use.

The island is not known to ever have had a permanent settlement, according to Arlington historian Richard A. Duffy, but was used sporadically for camping in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Also, Duffy wrote in an e-mail, "In 1810, the local West Cambridge [as Arlington was then named] militia joined with then-neighboring Watertown's militia to hold for military training purposes what was then called a 'sham war.' "Elizabeth Island was designated as the supposed site of a hostile American Indian village, Duffy said, and "those on the militia side of the exercise were reported to have attacked Elizabeth Island with rounds of 'cannonade' and to make a 'naval' attack to burn the wigwams and send the 'Indians' fleeing by canoe."

News of the island's potential sale inspired a range of responses on the Arlington e-mail list, a popular forum used by residents to discuss anything from town politics to restaurant reviews.

"Now there's a unique opportunity for the right person or organization," wrote Alan Jones, referring to the real estate listing. "Wouldn't it be nice if some conservation group could buy it?"

Another resident, Judith Hicks, said she didn't want the town to try to buy the island, at least at the listing price. "It would be great for the Town of Arlington to remember it has schools, roads, evidently sidewalks to fix," wrote Hicks. "$999,000 could make a dent somewhere in all of that."

Other residents speculated as to possible uses for the island: Wind turbines erected there could generate energy for the town, for example. One resident humorously suggested it could be used as a locale for the popular "Survivor" television series.

Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.