GLOUCESTER — In 1959, a man from Winchester named James Kimball achieved one of the all-time great real estate fantasies. He bought an island.
But Kimball’s goal was not seclusion; it was inclusion.
For $2,000, Kimball purchased Salt Island — a 5-acre mound of granite so close to Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester that you can walk there at low tide — to preserve it and make it open to the public.
The island is little more than jagged rocks, poison ivy, and aggressive sea gulls, but it was beloved by Kimball — who spent his childhood summers in a house on Briar Neck overlooking it — and he was so true to his mission of keeping it open and accessible that few people over the years knew that it was privately owned.
That is until Kimball died, in 2010.
In the seven years since, the story of Salt Island has been complicated by familial drama, upset neighbors, and a real estate deal with a conservation group that fell apart partly because of beach parking stickers. And now the island is up for sale again, leaving its future — and public access — very much in flux.
For $750,000, Salt Island could be yours. It comes with jaw-dropping views, a coveted beach resident parking sticker in Gloucester, and a host of potential problems for anyone who might think about developing it.
Still interested? Well then let’s begin again, with the one inarguable thing about Salt Island.
“It’s incredible to look at, isn’t it?” Karen Kimball Maslow said as she walked across a sandbar to the island early on Friday morning.
She is Kimball’s 66-year-old daughter, and, after her mother passed away this spring, she became the executor of the estate that controls the island. She and her two siblings are the ones offering it for sale, and she says their reason is quite simple.
“We’ve been the caretakers for 58 years,” Maslow said as she changed her flip-flops for sneakers and prepared to begin scaling the boulders that surround the island. “My siblings and I are getting older. We’re all in our 60s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.”
Whether it’s as simple as this depends on who you ask, and how you view that $750,000 price tag.
The city assessor’s office lists the island as unbuildable and values the property at just $8,400. That doesn’t mean a development is forbidden, according to Gregg Cademartori, the city’s planning director. Just very unlikely.
“The number of jurisdictions that would have the power of denial in a review, and the number of challenges on that site — like wastewater, access, public utilities — would lead a layman to conclude the development possibilities are extremely limited,” Cademartori said.
‘I can’t help it if someone buys it and paints it purple and puts pigs on it.’
So is $750,000 a wildly overpriced number for a rock that can only stay a rock? Or a once-in-a-lifetime deal on 5 acres of waterfront property? Or is it something more devious, as some residents here speculate: An effort to scare the community into buying the island in order to avert development?
The only thing anyone in Gloucester can seem to agree on is that it would be a shame to see change come to the unspoiled island.
That includes Karen Maslow, but as she reached the top of the island and looked back to the large summer homes that dot the cliffs of Briar Neck, she said protecting the island is no longer the responsibility of her family.
“If somebody buys it and builds, it’s because these guys didn’t step up to the plate and protect it the way my father did when I was a little girl,” said Maslow, who pointed out that she and her siblings are not rich people with big summer houses. “I can’t help it if someone buys it and paints it purple and puts pigs on it.”
The latest Salt Island drama feels like deja vu all over again for many in Gloucester, for this is not the first time the family has offered it for sale since James Kimball’s death. In 2013, while Kimball’s wife, Ellen, was still alive, the family came very close to striking a deal to sell the island to the Friends of Good Harbor Beach for $300,000 plus beach parking stickers for Maslow and her siblings in perpetuity (something the family would lose when they sold the island and ceased to be property owners in the city). The city refused to issue the parking passes.
While the wheels were still turning on that deal, the sale of another rocky island made the Kimballs rethink their asking price. The Graves, the outermost of Boston’s Harbor Islands and home to a historic lighthouse, sold at auction for $933,888. After that news broke, the Kimballs backed out of their deal with the Friends of Good Harbor Beach and pulled it off the market.
When they placed it back on sale late this summer, city officials, neighbors, and conservation groups began again the process of putting together a plan to preserve the island. This time around, the Essex County Greenbelt is leading the charge to acquire the island for the public, heading up a loose consortium that includes the Friends of Good Harbor Beach, the Friends of Briar Neck, and the Gloucester Historical Commission.
“We’re hoping to work with the landowner to reach an agreement on a price point that we both think makes sense based on what’s possible out there,” said Chris LaPointe, the director of land conservation for the Greenbelt. “But we should not forget in all of this that this island has been available for public use informally for generations thanks to the good will of that family. That point should not be lost.”
As Maslow stood on the east side of Salt Island, with nothing but the Atlantic in front of her, she said she fears that’s exactly what’s being lost in all the whispering and finger-pointing.
“To me, the island has always been a happy place, and I’d like to think that in its next life it will continue to be a happy place,” she said as a surfer caught a wave just off the southern end of Salt Island. She got quiet for a moment, marveling at a sight that’s been a part of her life for as long as she can remember, and allowed herself that old island fantasy.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if this were your backyard?”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.