For a little piece of Venezuela in the Delaware, past will be future

Ah, Petty’s Island.

So close, yet so inaccessible, it may as well be far.

So lush along its eastern and southern edges, yet so bleak in much of its blacktopped, industrialized core.

And so inspiring to so many dreamers, yet so resistant to their schemes for so long — remember the $1 billion Cherokee development plan of the mid-2000s?

But this private island owned by Venezuela, this legendary place of merrymaking, slave trading, shipbuilding, and oil-refining, this partly pristine yet also dramatically altered landscape where invasive and unusual native species thrive and bald eagles nest, but where no humans have lived for 50 years, is destined to become an urban nature preserve and open to the public in perpetuity.

“It will be the closest thing to Central Park in South Jersey, a nature preserve the likes of which are almost unheard of,” said Michael Catania, board chairman of the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust. The state agency is preparing to accept the deed to the island from Citgo, the global oil company, as early as 2020.

“Petty’s Island is magical,” said Robert Shinn, a local historian, environmentalist, and author who’s writing a book about it.

“It never ceases to surprise.”

These 400 acres of Pennsauken Township across the Delaware River’s back channel from New Jersey have had several names and have been bought, sold, litigated, and debated for centuries.

William Penn once owned it, Philly sought to annex it, and Camden unintentionally ceded it to Pennsauken and later tried, unsuccessfully, to get it back, Shinn says.

And since 1917, what is now Citgo, the Venezuelan state-owned company, has maintained  petroleum-related facilities there. The company phased out its operations more than a decade ago and, in 2009, then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez agreed to give the island back to New Jersey after Citgo finished with its environmental remediation.

“We’re excited to get you out [here] sometime soon and see what’s been done so far and where things are going,” Citgo’s Jack McCrossin said in an email, by way of politely informing me that I wouldn’t be allowed to go there last week.

I most recently visited the island in 2014 and wrote a column about the tour, which Shinn expertly led. The place is indeed magical, its forested landscape enhanced by beautiful views of the Delaware.

Meanwhile, as of Dec. 31, Crowley Maritime Corp. — the island’s last active commercial enterprise — will move its operations to Penn Terminals in Eddystone, Pa.

We “appreciate the long tenure in which we were allowed to operate on the island, and we look forward to seeing the conversion of the island into a preserve for the Land Trust and the community,” Crowley communications manager David DeCamp said in an email.

The departure should help facilitate Citgo’s remediation work, said Catania, adding that both companies have been good partners in the transition, which hasn’t been impacted by Venezuela’s current political and economic turmoil.

“The agreement is in place. The deal is still very much on,” Catania said, adding that the Trust is confident that “the events in Venezuela will not have any effect on Petty’s Island.”

Plans call for replanting woodlands at the northern tip of the island and grasslands where an oil tank farm and about a dozen industrial buildings now stand; a few of those structures may be retained or restored, and Crowley’s elevated cargo-handling terminal will become a visitors’ center.

The agreement with Citgo includes $1 million in seed money to develop that facility.

“You’ll be surrounded by the river on three sides, with great vistas,” said Catania. “It’s going to be really cool.”

There’s also quite a bit of work to do. The island lacks water and sewer service, and a parking area will be needed on the shoreline to accommodate visitors. They’ll likely be shuttled across the charming, if narrow, bridge from 36th Street.

Camera icon RON TARVER / Staff photographer
Bob Shinn, a Cherry Hill historian who’s writing a book about Petty’s Island, leading a tour there in 2014.

“People are curious about Petty’s Island,” said Shinn, whose periodic tours attract about 30 people. New Jersey Audubon Society also runs a dozen tours annually.

“A lot of people had relatives who worked there, but have never been there, or want to go back.”

The book, for which he continues to do research, will in part be about “the allure of the inaccessible,” Shinn said, noting that “Petty’s Island has been isolated. Until the bridge was built [in 1927], the only way to get there was by boat.”

The island nevertheless has been heavily used for most of its own history, by the Native Americans who fished and hunted there, and by those whose ever-more-intensive commercial and industrial activities followed.

Soon, it will be restored to a more natural state, a destination for ordinary people to enjoy.

Now that’s a happy ending to a long story.