BURLINGTON CITY — It’s been decades since its heyday, but when some gaze across the Delaware River at Burlington Island from the Riverfront Promenade, they see only its vast potential.
The 396-acre island, which includes a 100-acre lake, has been prohibited to visitors since 2012 after city officials cited safety concerns. The island is accessible only by boat, preventing first responders from getting there in the event of an emergency.
And since 2016, the city has been fighting a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dump dredge spoils from the river on the southeast side of the island. The Army argues that the river needs to be maintained to keep it open for cargo vessels.
But despite multiple obstacles, public interest in redeveloping the island into a shared community resource and tourist destination has never faltered, even in the wake of countless ideas that have been proposed over the years that have gone nowhere.
It will be more challenging to transform the island for recreational and educational use, as envisioned by the Board of Island Managers, in charge of its redevelopment, if a Superior Court judge sides with the Army Corps in its ongoing legal battle with the city. Both sides have debated who owns the island — the state or the municipality — and whether the city would suffer irreparable harm as a result of dumping dredge spoils there.
Officials have said the municipality was not consulted before a $215,000 contract was awarded in September 2016 to Mohawk Valley Materials, of New York, to clear 40 acres and vegetation to make room for sand and mud from the river. That work has been delayed by the court fight.
Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, that would prohibit dumping dredge spoils on Burlington Island without municipal approval was passed by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Feb. 5. It heads to the Senate floor for a vote.
The Army Corps’ plans to use the island as a dumping site prompted Singleton’s action.
“This is an island that holds significant historical and environmental benefits and should not be used as a dumping ground for contaminated dredge spoils in New Jersey,” Singleton said. “The island is undeveloped for a reason. It is meant to educate people on wildlife as well as be used for recreational purposes. Burlington Island is owned and operated by the City of Burlington, and no plan to dump dredge spoils should be considered without the approval of the city government.”
The island was deeded to the city in 1682 and has been vacant since the 1970s. Historians, archaeologists, boaters and curiosity seekers are drawn to its history as the former home to a Dutch settlement, trading post, amusement park, summer getaway, gravel quarry and nesting spot for bald eagles.
The Board of Island Managers was established in 1852 to manage an education fund charter, which states that any revenue made from activities on Burlington Island should be used for educating the city’s children.
Board member Joe Abate has long wanted see the island reopened for public use and redeveloped to include campgrounds, trails, restrooms and recreational attractions.
“We can put a man on the moon. We can certainly put people on the island,” Abate said.
Abate and the board have been raising money to benefit the island’s redevelopment for several years. They recently used donations to buy a tractor for $2,000 to create walking trails, and $1,200 for the purchase and transportation of a pontoon boat to carry the tractor to the island.
Burlington City spokesman John Alexander cited access as the biggest challenge to restoring Burlington Island. An approximate 100-foot bridge would need to be built to provide visitors and emergency crews immediate access, but costs are estimated at $1 million, Alexander said.
“The cost of access is the only barrier,” he said.
Once the island is easily accessible, it may become attractive to schools, youth groups and organizations. Even in the island’s present condition, Doane Academy, which has a view of the site from its location on the river in the city, is in talks with the Board of Island Managers to use space for its outdoor educational program, and the Adventure Aquarium in Camden submitted a letter of intent last month to launch an aquatic education program on the island.
No one knows better than longtime supporters of Burlington Island that there’s still a way to go, but each baby step moves it closer to being used for its original purpose: education and community outreach.
“The framers of the charter never intended for it to be a dumping site,” Abate said. “We’d like to capture the island and bring it back to the people.”