Slashing Prices on Long Beach West

Looks like Stratford mayor John Harkins had to break the bad news to town officials — the same news I broke in December:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will start removing more than 40 vacant cottages, outbuildings and docks from Long Beach West in February even though local officials say the previously approved sale of the 35-acre barrier beach to the federal agency is in jeopardy.

Those are among the issues ironed out during a Wednesday night meeting among town and federal officials, who met behind closed doors in Harkins’ Town Hall office.

All sides agreed afterward that demolition of the cottages will move forward despite announcement recently by the non-profit Trust for Public Land — the intermediary agency that is supposed to transfer the property to the fish and wildlife service within five years — that the land is now valued at less than the minimum $10 million voters overwhelmingly approved in a November 2008 referendum.

With the land value now estimated at $7 million, and potentially lower, that means the sale is in jeopardy, according to both Harkins and TPL officials.

The consensus is the lower price tag calls for a new referendum, though my hope is this kills the deal permanently. Fish and Wildlife are not the villains in any sense but I see little gain — certainly not financial — in the town surrendering over a mile of deserted shoreline to federal authority. Development isn’t a concern; access is, and Stratford is better situated to steward Long Beach West than anyone else.

Long Beach Mess

My feature on Long Beach West, an abandoned collection of cottages on a barrier beach in Stratford, Connecticut is the cover story of this week’s Fairfield County Weekly.

It’s probably not terribly interesting if you don’t live in Stratford, but if you do, the story may come as a shock. The agreement to sell the beach to the federal government was sold to the citizens on the promise that Stratford would receive $10 million for the land. But as I show, that number is a made-up one:

Lisa Bassani, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, says that TPL and Stratford each did their own appraisals, resulting in two different numbers — one lower (TPL’s) and one higher (Stratford’s). They “split it down the middle” and mutually settled on a value of $10 million.

Bassani says TPL will submit a new appraisal to the Fish and Wildlife Service that adheres to Yellow Book standards. French says the appraisal must then be approved by the Appraisal Services Directorate, an office of the Department of the Interior. The Service cannot pay more than the figure listed in the appraisal — which could be less than $10 million, especially considering TPL’s previous appraisal.

I asked Ms. Bassani: If the FWS values the land at less than $10 million, will TPL still pay $10 mil to Stratford and then sell the land at a loss to FWS, perhaps using grants or donations to make up the difference? She said no. So if the Yellow Book appraisal comes back with a lesser valuation, there’s no way Stratford is going to receive $10 million — bad news to the two-thirds of Stratford voters who agreed to sell the land in a 2008 referendum.

My photo essay of Long Beach West is here.

Ghost Town and Country

The weekend edition of the Journal ran a feature about Jonestown, site of the famous massacre which occurred 30 years ago last month. Author Eric Banks uses the story as a thumbnail for Guyana itself, in part by describing unsuccessful efforts to fashion Jonestown (which has no standing structures — only rusted fragments amongst grass and jungle) into a tourist destination:

Over time there have been intermittent schemes to clear and memorialize the site. Last year, the Guyanese minister of tourism, industry and commerce, Manniram Prashad, visited it to promote his vision of “dark tourism.” A reporter from the Guyana Chronicle cheekily commented that Mr. Prashad “remarked that Jonestown, if reconstructed, can be a major tourist attraction in Guyana.” Rather than getting involved in the “blame game,” Mr. Prashad stated, “we should work to educate our people and allow others who suffered as a result of the loss of loved ones and friends to visit the site if they so wish.”

No grislier an idea than opening Dachau or Auschwitz to tourists, though in those cases I would say they are representative of something greater than what occurred there. What does Jonestown stand for? A metaphor for the excess and naivete in the decade following the Summer of Love, perhaps; of those who, like Charles Manson’s disciples, wanted so badly to drop out they were willing to turn on and tune in to just about anything else.

Jonestown, like ghost towns everywhere, owes its existence to its remoteness, which is exactly what precludes it from being a big tourist draw now:

Large parts of the interior remain virtually inaccessible, particularly in the northern regions, where Jonestown is located. Though a Chinese timber company has begun operations around Port Kaituma, the tin-shack mining town located about 10 miles from the Jonestown site, the town itself shrank by nearly half with the closing of the Barama Logging Company a decade ago and comprises a more transient population of “pork knockers,” individuals panning for gold. The lack of infrastructure has at least been a boon to the small river port — it’s the only real source of basic supplies imported for the entire region.

Such is the nature of the beast. Attempts to repurpose some of the old iron towns of the New Jersey Pine Barrens failed because they were too far away from everywhere; water, wood, and bog iron midwifed them into wilderness, and there they died when iron and coal were discovered in Pennsylvania. The same isolation preserved them into the present. Developing Jonestown would demand overcoming the seclusion that has kept it, if not intact, then at least unpaved, and just aren’t worth it. Those compelled to visit a place, like Banks, will endure the hardship of getting there.

Story here. A wonderful thing about the WSJ‘s online edition are the slideshows.