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Petty’s Island’s return to the wild

A 500-acre island once slated for a hotel and golf course has been preserved into perpetuity as a park instead. How did that happen?

It’s a bright and crisp Saturday morning in early December, one of those “couldn’t have asked for a better weather” kind of days. A group made up of a little more than a dozen folks ranging from elderly to young have gathered on the edge of a makeshift parking lot at the edge of the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey. A few of them snap a selfie in front of a large sign that reads, in big block letters, “WELCOME TO PETTY’S ISLAND.”

“Oh, please don’t walk in the roads,” a woman gently admonishes them. “This is still an active site.”

But not for long. In just a few weeks, the island’s last-remaining industrial company will pack up and move out. Then, Petty’s Island journey back to nature begins.

Petty’s Island sits in the middle of the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden.

Christine Whorton of the New Jersey Audubon is here to lead the group on a rare hike of the year at Petty’s Island. As one of the only ways for the public to access the privately-owned island, many of the tours sell out within minutes. But this one, the last of the year, looks and feels a little different than the rest.

Beyond the Petty’s Island sign sits hundreds of acres of grass, with Philadelphia’s Center City skyline in the background. The skyscrapers are barely pinpricks, but the fact that you can see them from this vantage point at all is significant: It’s the first time that Philly has been on display from Petty’s Island in decades.

“Up until a few weeks ago, that view was completely blocked by massive tankers,” says Cari Wild, real estate coordinator of the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust. Now, just large, circular imprints are what’s left of them, signs of the gaping hole left by CITGO, the Venezuelan-owned fuel company that had called Petty’s Island home since the 1930s.

For Wild and the coalition of environmentalists involved in the never-ending, torturous, and political battle to preserve the island, the new view marks the start of Petty’s Island future, and in some ways, a return to its beginnings.

Petty’s Island has been an industrial site for nearly a century.
Photo by Melissa Romero

Petty’s Island, all 500 acres of it, juts out onto the Delaware River, a short drive over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Camden, New Jersey. It can be seen while driving north along I-95 or if while exploring the Delaware River waterfront in the River Wards neighborhoods or from Graffiti Pier.

The view of Petty’s Island from Philadelphia was the same one that convinced a Quaker named Elizabeth Kinsey to purchase the island from the Lenni Lenape tribe, which called the island Aequikenaska. In the deed, it was referred to as the “great island lying before Shaksemasen.”

Kinsey used the island as a place for her farm animals to graze, while the Lenni Lenape were allowed to continue hunting on the great island. It enjoyed many years as a agricultural utopia, ultimately falling into the hands of Philadelphia merchant John Petty, hence the island’s current name. By the mid-19th century, Petty’s Island was home to not only livestock and farms, but humans, as well.

Not long after, however, the industrial boom took hold of the Philadelphia region, and by the early 1900s Petty’s Island became a prime spot for Cities Service (later CITGO) and Crowley Maritime Corporation to set up shop. The island’s role as an industrial site ultimately lasted for nearly a century.

The view of Philadelphia’s skyline is in clear view from Petty’s Island.

By 2000, CITGO had shut down its operations on the island, although it still maintained ownership. The Pennsauken Township had big plans for the future of the island, and entered into talks with developer Cherokee to bring a $1 billion mixed-use development to the island, including some 700 dwellings, retail, a hotel, and a golf course. The deal specified that CITGO would not be responsible for environmental cleanup; Pennsauken and the developer would take care of the remediation efforts.

Those plans were nearly set in stone, until in 2004 when a little birdie told CITGO that two bald eagles had been spotted nesting on the island. Development plans came to a screeching halt, with CITGO pulling out of the deal with Cherokee.

Instead, in a move that would be unheard of in today’s climate, CITGO teamed up with the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, and agreed to donate the island to the trust—for free.

The New Jersey Natural Lands Trust plans to turn Petty’s Island into a natural habitat and re-open it to the public one day.

But the local township wasn’t having it, setting off a long-standing battle with certain groups taking unexpected sides: A coalition of environmental groups and CITGO versus pro-development officials faced off for the next few years.

To this day, historian Robert “Bob” Shinn of the Camden County Historical Society is incredulous when he thinks about the unlikely pairing: “Where else do you see an environmental coalition teaming up with an oil company?”

As Shinn says, to make a long and embattled story short, in 2009—on Earth Day, no less—the Venezuelan government officially handed off the entire island to the New Jersey Land Trust with an easement. In addition, CITGO set up a $2 million fund for the trust, and provided another $1 million to create a visitor’s center. Also notably included in the easement: No future developments that include marinas, golf courses, restaurants and ball fields.

“Where else do you see an environmental coalition teaming up with an oil company?” asks Bob Shinn, of the Camden County Historical Society.

“This is one of the few places that went from nature to industry to oil to coal, and then back” says Shinn, who has a forthcoming book about the island. “It’s made an arc from nature to all different industries back to nature.”

But the public will have to wait a few more years before they can visit Petty’s Island. Although the last industrial and shipping operations ended at the end of 2017, CITGO has until 2020 to finish its remediation efforts here before it finally hands Petty’s Island over to the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust.

The hope is that the island will reopen to the public by 2021 as an urban nature preserve, although the nature center likely won’t be ready by then.

And anyway, after making it through the 15-year saga, Wild says she’s used to waiting. “I like to put it this way: Nature always bats last.”