For $13 Million, Two Private Islands 30 Minutes by Boat From Manhattan
(Bloomberg) -- It’s hard to give the exact dimensions of Columbia Island, a small piece of bedrock off the coast of New Rochelle, N.Y., because the tide changes its dimensions so dramatically.
In a 1966 article announcing that the “Radio-TV Couple” Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy had donated the island to the College of New Rochelle, the New York Times claimed that it “varies in size from about an acre to 175 square feet,” though that’s not quite right, given that even at the time the island was the site of a roughly 5,000-square-foot bunker that had been the base of a 400-foot-tall broadcast tower.
For much of the 20th century, the island had been owned by New Rochelle’s Huguenot Yacht Club. In the 1940s the club, which also owned the next-door, four-acre Pea Island, sold its smaller holding to CBS, which promptly built the aforementioned tower.
“They built an elaborate and dense transmission space,” says Al Sutton, Columbia Island’s present owner. “They had a full crew and several families doing work there every day.”
In the early 1960s CBS sold the island for about $35,000 to Hayes, who then, citing the $8,600 annual tax bill, donated it to the college.
Despite the college’s intent to use the island as a “center for the study of marine biology,” according to the 1966 Times piece, the island fell into disrepair. The college eventually gave the island to the superintendent in charge of maintaining it (“they couldn’t pay him to do it, so they just gave it to him,” Sutton says). Sometime around 2005 the island was quietly put on the market, and in 2007 Sutton formally bought it for what he says was $1 million.
“I could go back and question my logic,” Sutton says, “but I won’t drift into that. Essentially I had done some stuff on land including condominium projects on the Bowery, and I was sort of cocky.”
The problem, he says, was that “you get on the island, even if it’s a wreck, and it’s just gorgeous—the sky, the tide, the birds, everything. And that sort of blinded me and my thoughts. I just went: ‘Wow, what a Zen experience this could be.’ ”
In retrospect, Sutton continues, “a simpler solution for my desire for a Zen retreat would have been to rent a rowboat from City Island for $10, get out there whenever I wanted, stick a fishing pole in the water, look at the sky, look at the birds, say ‘Isn’t this gorgeous.’ I’ve often thought that.”
Instead, Sutton embarked on what he says was an 11-year, $8 million construction project to turn the island into a habitable, luxurious private home.
Now that the project is complete, though, Sutton hasn’t moved in. Instead, he’s put it on the market for $13 million, listing it with Patti Anderson at Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty. “I’m 85 now,” he explains, “and I guess when I bought it, I was in my 70s and I was more ambitious.”
Two Barges, Several Mistakes
Sutton’s sweat equity in the project, not to mention his actual equity, was considerable. A doctor by trade and an author by inclination (he wrote a 1980s novel about the evils of medical overbilling, Physician Heal Thyself: The Making of a Whistleblower), Sutton had several other side projects as a real estate developer, actor, and producer.
Once he bought the island, he became something of a contractor, too.
First he had to change the island’s zoning to residential, which took him more than a year. Then he had to clear out the considerable amount of equipment and debris that had collected on the island during its half-century of disuse. He bought two barges (“one was stolen, but I still have the other,” Sutton says) to haul the material, then he began to renovate the property itself.
“It was fine once you got through with the mistakes,” he says.
Initial errors included putting in ordinary-grade windows and electrical wiring (“fine until you learn a year later that they corrode in the salt air”), using sheetrock, which got wet, and so forth. But after replacing the windows, wiring, and walls with corrosive-resistant materials, he was left with a watertight, roughly 5,600-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-bath home with a professional kitchen. The house is as close to hurricane-proof as it gets: There’s a 5-foot-thick, approximately 14 -foot-high concrete sea wall, automatic storm shutters, and a 60,000-gallon-per-hour pumping system for the structure’s basement.
Even though the island is just a few minutes away from New Rochelle, it’s designed to be self-sustaining. There’s a desalination machine in the basement to provide clean water, solar panels on the roof for energy, a septic system that gets emptied out by a private service, and a sprinkler system.
Five years ago—already more than seven years into the project—the next-door Pea Island came up for sale, and so he bought that, too, for what he says was $500,000. The only thing on the island, currently, is a partial sea wall and a tire swing. Even so, “it felt important to get for a couple of reasons,” he says. “One, I thought it would be good protection, because this way you wouldn’t have a hostile neighbor, and two, then it also occurred to me that it had other value in itself as a natural resort type of thing.” Pea Island is included in the sale price.
A Fast Boat
Sutton lives in Manhattan, and it takes him about 40 minutes to go to New Rochelle, and then another 10 minutes via boat to get to his island. Alternately, he says that with a “fast boat” it’s a half-hour ride from his island’s location at the mouth of the Long Island Sound to the East 34th Street heliport.
New York’s skyline is visible from the island, and Sutton suggests the property might appeal to someone “who wants privacy but also high-profile bragging rights. Certainly sports figures could manage it financially.”
Sutton is well aware that his decade of pain will be someone else’s gain. He says he’ll barely be making a profit if the island sells for its list price.
“I’m not a big spender, or at least I wasn’t until now,” he says. “But here was something that, to be realized, had to be done right.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.