She Bought Another Island. People Are Wondering.

Date: 2007-06-10
Source: NY Times

She Bought Another Island. People Are Wondering.

Published: June 10, 2007

THEY have been around since the Ice Age and have been inhabited by some famous people, like Tom Thumb and President William Howard Taft. Legend has it that Captain Kidd may have buried pirate treasure on one of them, and in the early 1900s visitors flocked to resorts on their shores. Most recently, the archipelago islands off the shores of Branford known as the Thimble Islands have been the talk of the town because one woman has been buying them up.

Christine Svenningsen, who lives in Westchester, owns more than a third of the two dozen inhabitable Thimbles — the first time in recent memory that so many of the islands have been owned by one person. Her most recent purchase was this spring, when she bought East Crib Island for $3.15 million. In October, she purchased Belden Island for $2.7 million. In total, she has spent more than $30 million for nine islands, including the most expensive, Rogers Island and its Tudor-style mansion, for which she paid $22.3 million in 2003.

Mrs. Svenningsen, the widow of John A. Svenningsen, a party-goods magnate from Westchester who died in 1997, declined to comment about the purchases, citing privacy concerns, according to her spokesman. Many residents and preservation officials say she lovingly restores the homes — some of which date to the 1800s — on the islands, paying careful attention to their historic integrity. Her signature is flagpoles spelling out her islands’ names in color-coded flags.

But “creekers,” as many shoreline residents in the Stony Creek section of Branford call themselves, say they wonder what she will do with her nine islands, whether she will rent, resell or keep them for family members. They say the buying has changed the culture of the islands — many of which have remained in families for generations — and driven up already skyrocketing real estate prices and taxes.

Taxes for the Thimbles and waterfront homes rose sharply after townwide revaluations in 2002 — the first reassessment in 12 years — and in 2004. Mrs. Svenningsen is appealing the revaluations on up to five of her islands, said her lawyer, J. Michael Sulzbach. Cut in Two East, for example, was assessed at $324,000 in 2002 and taxes were $7,761 in 2003, when she bought it for $3.4 million. After the second revaluation, the island was assessed at $2.38 million and taxes rose to $51,982 in 2005.

But some residents said that Mrs. Svenningsen’s $22 million purchase of Rogers Island contributed to the tax increases.

Mr. Sulzbach said that while he understood the concern over taxes, Mrs. Svenningsen’s purchase of Rogers does not reflect what most buyers would have paid, and so is not an indication of the real value of the property. He said she made a high offer to discourage other potential bidders.

“The standard isn’t what she paid for it,” Mr. Sulzbach said. “For tax assessments, the standard is what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller, and that is different from what it sold for. Maybe somebody got a great deal, or someone paid too much. That happens all the time.”

Mr. Sulzbach said Mrs. Svenningsen had an “altruistic” interest in the islands.

“She is particularly keen on preserving those islands and the character of Stony Creek,” he said. “She had very special reasons for wanting them, and they only come up for sale once in a while.”

Chris Goetsch, 33, grew up in Stony Creek and likes to vacation with his wife and children on the cottage on High Island that his grandfather bought in the 1960s. He said Mrs. Svenningsen’s purchases of the islands had been unnerving for many residents.

“Where is she going with this?” asked Mr. Goetsch, who now lives in Guilford and owns a construction firm. “Does she want to buy every island? What is she going to do next?”

Mr. Goetsch said the money that Mrs. Svenningsen paid for the islands had overwhelmed residents and changed the “humble” nature of the area.

“A lot of houses are owned by people who aren’t really rich, and the homes have been handed down from generation to generation,” he said. “People do what they can to keep it in the family. Her purchase prices were ridiculous. Home prices on the islands are out of reach for those of us who grew up here.”

Chloe Samuels lives in Stony Creek, just a short walk to the dock where boats ferry passengers to and from the Thimbles. She said she was worried that the area was losing its local color. “What concerns me is that it’s going to become gentrified,” she said.

Mrs. Samuels said the rise in real estate values was both good and bad. A friend, she said, had sold to Mrs. Svenningsen because her offer was too good to refuse. “You want your house prices to go up if you want to sell, but if you don’t want to sell, there is no benefit to it,” she said.

The people who sold islands to Mrs. Svenningsen did not return telephone calls.

Still, residents in the area say they have been impressed with the work Mrs. Svenningsen has done on the islands.

Theodore F. Ells, a lawyer and member of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said he had wanted the trust to take action to prevent Mrs. Svenningsen from knocking down a historic 1860 home on Wheeler Island, which she bought in 1998, but the commission refused. Nonetheless, he said he ended up being pleased with her work.

“She went ahead and tore it down and built a house exactly the same,” said Mr. Ells, whose home in Stony Creek overlooks the island. “It puts me at ease.”


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