Bay Journal

Want a piece of the Potomac? He’s got an island (or 3) to sell to you

Too flood-prone to build on, they’re still a draw for paddlers, birders, campers.

  • By Whitney Pipkin on August 07, 2017
Three islands in the Potomac River downstream of Dam #5 are for sale by owner.  Maryland is exploring purchasing them, a spokesman says.  (Courtesy Peter Mertz) Aerial view of Potomac River islands for sale, near Clear Spring, MD.  (Provided by real estate agent Buzz Mackintosh.)

No man is an island. But, for less than $175,000, a man (or woman) could buy three of them in the Potomac River — if he or she acts fast.

Real estate agent Buzz Mackintosh said the islands, about seven miles upstream of Williamsport, MD, have garnered interest from a handful of prospective buyers since going on the market earlier this year, but no one has taken the leap. Now, the state of Maryland, which already owns and manages several nearby islands, is weighing purchasing them.

This chain of islands is not particularly rare; there are nearly 100 islands of varying sizes in the Potomac River, more than three-quarters of them named. But few of those islands are privately owned, and rarely do they change hands or come up for sale.

That’s one of the reasons the islands’ owner, Peter Mertz, first snatched up this trio in 1986. Then a 27-year-old reporter for a Hagerstown, MD, television station, Mertz liked the idea of having his own island — or three — in the middle of the so-called Nation’s River.

“From my perspective, it was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime purchase,” said Mertz, who now lives in Colorado. “I used to go camping and do overnights on the islands. It was really serene and beautiful and unique, being on an island in the middle of a major river.”

Mertz, now 58, purchased the islands (for an amount he’d rather not disclose) from a pair of brothers who’d had the land since the midcentury. They said it was ideal for duck hunting, among other outdoor pastimes.

The islands are just below the river’s Dam Number 5. They are accessible only by boat from the Maryland or West Virginia sides of the river, though Mertz said an intrepid swimmer could navigate the calmer waters south of the dam to reach them.

Mackintosh said he had never listed an island before this property, but his older brother had listed one years ago near Poolesville, though it never sold. While owning an island comes with some inherent cachet, the owners of these would not be able to build any permanent structures on them because they are considered entirely in the flood zone. Only five of the islands’ total 108 acres are above the water most of the time.

Still, the listing garnered a flurry of initial media attention, thanks in part to Mertz’s past work as a local reporter.  Mackintosh said interested buyers included a local restauranteur, a handful of wildlife enthusiasts, birdwatchers and a school that was considering using the land as a “living classroom.”

Recognizing the natural resources of the islands, Mertz said he initially tried to sell the islands to The Nature Conservancy, but didn’t get a response. Mackintosh said the state of Maryland had been interested early on, but he knew the process of a public purchase could take a while.

A spokesman for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources confirmed that the state is “considering its options with regard to some properties in the Potomac River.” Maryland already owns several islands in the river, from Montgomery County to the North Branch of the river 150 miles upstream. The state manages these islands collectively as the Islands of the Potomac Wildlife Management Area, according to DNR spokesman Gregg Bortz.

Few people paddling this portion of the Potomac would know whether an island is publicly or privately owned, and many might assume that, in the absence of signs to the contrary, parking their kayak on its shore is permitted.
“I imagine you’d spend a lot of your time chasing people off of it,” said Curtis Dalpra, spokesman for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, about the idea of owning a Potomac island. “I know there are little islands in the Potomac area that, if you take a Saturday paddle, you see people tent camping on those islands or fishing. Whoever does buy them, I think they’d better like company.”

As part of his pitch to potential buyers, Mackintosh mentions that the three islands are not yet named. That means the next owner could not only use them as a personal playground, but also leave a legacy by giving them identities. (With Sleepy Creek, Back Creek and Duck islands nearby, the competition for creative island monikers in the Potomac isn’t too steep).

Compared with other islands that have been on the market in the region — and with the going rate for land in the Washington, DC, area — paying less than $200,000 for five acres of anything, particularly waterfront, could be considered a steal.

For example, another island currently for sale in Maryland’s Severn River is listed at nearly $3 million. The 6.5-acre island is a short boat ride from Annapolis and includes a four-bedroom, Palladian-style mansion, circa 1932, and immaculate landscaping. Along with three boat slips, the listing with Sotheby’s International Realty says the property comes with enough parking for five cars (though it has no advice on how to get cars on and off the island) and has a potential site for a helicopter pad.

A 55-acre island in the Chesapeake Bay near Smith Island is also for sale for an asking price of $1.5 million — though it nearly sold for $14 million almost a decade ago, according to news reports. The patch of land is called Goat Island and comes with about 30 of them; keeping livestock on islands was once a popular alternative to fencing them in on the mainland. The island has been on the market for years, but real estate agents recently erected a large for-sale sign there to generate interest among summer boaters.

Elsewhere on the Potomac, the Sycamore Island Club owns two islands in the river near Glen Echo, MD, that it shares with the group’s 160 members, for a fee of $400 per year. There’s a clubhouse on Sycamore Island, which is accessible by boat, and members also have access to undeveloped Rupperts Island just upstream. 

At one point during his time in the DC area, Mertz was on the waiting list to join the Sycamore Island Club, which would allow him to store his canoes closer to the city. His three Potomac islands didn’t have much in the way of permanent docks, so he thought he might like a share in another island.

Having grown up near the Potomac, Mertz still marvels at the novelty of owning a few of its islands — even if he can’t build a mansion on them. In his 31 years of ownership, Mertz doesn’t recall seeing another island on the river come up for sale, so he’s glad he bought when he did.

“The whole thing is spectacular,” he concluded. “You can get away and get right down there in the river any time you want to.”

About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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