Theme-park plan for Burlington Island advances

Woolman Community Development's plan includes a boatbuilding school, archaeological dig, campsite, trails, and other attractions.
Woolman Community Development's plan includes a boatbuilding school, archaeological dig, campsite, trails, and other attractions.
Posted: January 16, 2012

An ambitious plan to turn the uninhabited 400-acre Burlington Island into a historical theme park is advancing, a Mount Holly developer says, even as the state is moving to designate the island's southern end for the dumping of dredge spoils.

Karen Robbins, chief executive of Woolman Community Development, the group the Board of Island Managers chose three years ago to develop the site, said her company wanted to turn the Delaware River island into a re-created 17th-century Lenni Lenape village, trading post, and fort.

The park, she said, would be similar to the Plimouth Plantation tourist attraction in Massachusetts.

Among the attractions Woolman would put on the island are a living-history museum, amphitheater, boatbuilding school, archaeological dig, campground, and nature trails.

The nonprofit board - a trust set up in the early 1700s to fund education for the poor from the island's revenue - accepted Woolman's proposal in 2009 after a long list of other projects fizzled in previous years, including a 2002 bid by Philadelphia entrepreneur Sam Katz to build a golf resort.

The island is partly also under the jurisdiction of Burlington City, and Mayor James Fazzone expressed skepticism over the proposal, saying he had seen too many fall apart in the past.

"We get a lot of tire-kickers, people who come to town and want to put in a housing project or a shopping center, but who are not real players," he said.

But Fazzone said he had not been given enough information about the current proposal to decide whether it was worth supporting.

"I'm not convinced either way. . . . But we would love to develop that island," he said.

The conceptual plans are ready, Robbins said, but now her company is focusing on financing. The company's website, www.woolmancdc.com, offers conceptual renderings and descriptions of the plans.

"It looks very promising," Robbins said. "We are talking to interested investors and we hope to have a partnership agreement soon."

Robbins said the project could take three years to complete, with the first phase - including the re-created village, boating and fishing facilities, and a campground - estimated to cost $2.5 million. She said the group was "working on finalizing" the total cost of the project.

The theme park would be called "Trader's Island" and would highlight the island's rich and storied past, she said.

Once inhabited by Native Americans, the island was settled in 1624 by Dutch Walloons fleeing religious persecution. Later, Swedes and English took control of the island, which sits off the shores of Burlington City and Bristol, Bucks County, and which includes a sparkling 100-acre lake.

Robbins said archaeologists studied the site and discovered an estimated 2,000 artifacts, many of which are stored at Harvard University's Peabody Museum and at the University of Pennsylvania.

She said that in recent weeks, she and her team had visited the museums to discuss borrowing some of the artifacts - including glass beads - so they could be exhibited on the island.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection is still considering the island and three other sites as depositories for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' long-overdue maintenance dredging of the Delaware River. DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the lower 50 acres of the island were used as a dumping ground when the river was dredged in the 1970s and was targeted to accept more spoils.

In the next few weeks, Hajna said, DEP officials expect to meet with Burlington City officials and members of the board of managers to discuss the dredging issue. "The state's contention is that these areas that were created by the spoils are riparian lands," which once were underwater and are legally owned by the state, he said.

Riverfront parcels in Palmyra, Cinnaminson, and Beverly are also under consideration, he said of the dredge deposits. One or more sites may be chosen, depending on the amount of sediment that needs to be removed to make the river navigable, he said.

Robbins noted that the southern tip of the island was preserved as open space under the state's Green Acres program and said dredging should not be allowed on such land.

"You have a beautiful area [set aside] for recreation, and to ruin that by making it into a permanent dumping ground is a contradiction," she said.

Jim Cipriano, president of the board of managers, threatened, only half-jokingly, to "lie in front of bulldozers" if the DEP proceeded with its proposal.

Cipriano said there were 1.5 million cubic yards of spoils - making up an area the size of a football field about 30 feet high. But most of the surface has trees and brush, he said, making the island "a more tranquil place. . . . We want to leave them intact and just have walking trails."

The DEP, he said, wants to excavate the area of spoils, removing the dirt to use in road projects. In the process, it would create room for deposits of spoils for a new round of dredging.

"They want to make it a dirt warehouse," Cipriano said.

In the last couple of years, Cipriano said, 3.5 miles of trails have been carved into the island, and spring cleanups are held to remove litter and debris. The plan is to develop the island for recreation, an idea that has been around for more than 50 years without coming to fruition.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler

at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

For a history of the island, go to www.burlingtonisland.com.

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