New York Times
August 3, 2008

An Island, Untamed and Divided
(view the actual web story by clicking here)

TO some eyes, it’s a piece of paradise, a tree-covered island on Long Island Sound with sculptured stone outcroppings shadowed by ancient maples and pines. The silence is stunning, the only sounds coming from jets high overhead and squawking gulls. The island is 30 acres at low tide, and the soft, damp earth is studded with clam and oyster shells. For the 34 homeowners whose small and simple houses dot the land, Hen Island is their refuge, for some a childhood relic passed down through family. Houses come up for public sale only every decade or so.

Ten minutes from Rye by motorboat, the enclave of privately owned cottages remains deliberately and determinedly primitive, with no running water, electricity or sewage systems. Light and heat are provided through individually owned generators or through propane, stored outside homes in tall tanks. There are no roads and no year-round residents.

The homeowners, a mix of blue-collar workers and professionals from Westchester and Rockland Counties and upstate who typically visit only on weekends, consider the island a haven from their busy everyday lives. There are no property lines, and many of the homes have been in their families for decades.

But the tranquillity is threatened by a bitter and protracted dispute over the island’s future.

Ray Tartaglione, a homeowner here for 11 years, has challenged the way of life by insisting that the city and the county provide sewage and water and ensure there is no sewage leaking into the Sound. Mr. Tartaglione, who formerly served on the seven-member board of the island’s homeowners corporation, including a stint as president, has filed three lawsuits since 2003, against the co-op and the city, over what he contends are unsafe and unsanitary conditions and violations of zoning laws.

Mr. Tartaglione, who said he has spent “lots and lots” of money on the lawsuits, speaks with the emotion of a disappointed suitor. “I love that place, and I’m not walking away from it,” said Mr. Tartaglione, 54, who owns a White Plains auto towing and repair company. “I love nature. I love the water. I love the outside. It takes my breath away every single time I get there. I think it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. But you fall in love and find out it’s not what you expected.”

What Mr. Tartaglione argues is progress, the current co-op board president, Ben Minard, calls a threat to the future of the island.

“Right now, the island is undeveloped,” said Mr. Minard, 63, a financial planner who lives near Syracuse and is the son of one of the colony’s founders. “We don’t want to be developed.” Utilities could be brought in, he said, “but we the board, and we the shareholders, don’t want any part of this.”

The island’s history has been calm before now. In 1661, an Indian chief sold the island to a New England settler, John Budd, whose grandson sold it in 1745 to John Jay. After World War II, about eight men established themselves as summer residents and in 1952 formed a holding company called the Kuder Island Colony Corporation, named for the first married couple to move onto Hen Island.

Owners of the homes on the island receive police, fire and other services from Rye and pay taxes to the city, based on the size of their houses. Residents pay annual dues, which vary, to the homeowners corporation to maintain the island.

Mr. Tartaglione first sued the corporation over what he felt were unsanitary conditions like collecting rainwater in cisterns that is used for showers and washing dishes. That suit was dismissed but is being appealed, said his lawyer, Steven Gaines. He also sued the corporation over what he believed to be an overassessment of fees. Another suit focuses on zoning laws in connection with the construction of a home on the island.

Some homeowners, like Claudio Iodice, 65, a commercial real estate developer in Montebello, N.Y., are fed up with the infighting and the conditions on the island. He has put his Hen Island house up for sale, asking $415,000 for the 800-square-foot home he has owned for 12 years.

Mr. Iodice said it took six or seven years to clean the property of accumulated bottles and other debris. The island has become infested with mosquitoes, residents’ sewage is going into the Sound and propane tanks are unsafe, he said. “I won’t let my grandkids go out there,” he said.

Peter Barotz, 80, a 25-year homeowner there who lives in New Rochelle, is not selling but is also frustrated by the disputes and the lack of resolutions. “If you don’t look ahead, a disaster occurs; people aren’t addressing the real issues,” he said, naming the same concerns as Mr. Iodice. “Ray is angry and hurt. Everything was done because he wanted a more beautiful place.”

There appears a deep schism between those who like things the way they have always been and those who hoped for a tidier, more manicured Hen Island.

“It was the most unsafe place you’ve ever seen,” Mr. Iodice said of the island’s appearance when he bought his home. “You say to yourself, ‘I can clean it up,’ but some old-timers don’t want to fix anything.”

Mr. Barotz said, “I expected the island would eventually become upscale.”

But many of the homeowners do not agree with Mr. Tartaglione. Mr. Minard, the board president, said that of 16 families who live on the northern part of the island, 10 now get along with Mr. Tartaglione.

Mr. Tartaglione said, “I’d say about 24 or 25 of the 34 don’t like me.”

Mr. Minard, a part-time resident of Hen Island for 60 years, contends that Mr. Tartaglione would “like to control the island.”

Leonard S. Meyerson, deputy commissioner of environmental health for Westchester, said, “It’s definitely a neighborhood fight.” He said that he inspected the island in July and August 2007 and that members of his staff also visited on two other occasions to check for unsanitary conditions.

“There are definitely systems in place that in the modern world, scrutinized by an engineer, would not be acceptable,” he said. But he said he and his staff never found problems like sewage emerging, odors or slime or algal growth in the water. “We went time and time and time again,” Mr. Meyerson said, “and we found no health code violations.”

Mr. Meyerson said it was ultimately the responsibility of the corporation and the board to regulate themselves. “This is a private property, and you have to respect their private property rights,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”

Not every homeowner is embroiled in the dispute. Helen Tierney, 62, a visiting nurse who lives in Mamaroneck and owns a home on the island, just wants to sell her house. Her 900-square-foot house on the southernmost tip on the island, with clear views of the Empire State Building, is on the market for $499,000. She recently dropped the price by $100,000.

Mrs. Tierney has owned the house for nine years. Her late husband, Patrick Tierney, made many improvements to the property and the house, she said.

“It was literally falling down,” she said. “He brought out tons and tons of topsoil, mulch and plants, quite a lot if you’re bringing it all out by boat. He loved the place, but I don’t want to go out there without my husband.

“People get away with things they shouldn’t get away with,” Mrs. Tierney said when asked to characterize the infighting. She recalled that when Mr. Tartaglione got on the board, he said, “ ‘No, it shouldn’t be like this.’ ”

“In some ways, he’s right,” Mrs. Tierney said. “There has been preferential treatment. It’s like a little microcosm in the middle of nowhere.”


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