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A storm off Chatham's coast

Homeowner's suit to buy back island raises preservation concerns

CHATHAM -- A court battle is brewing over Strong Island, 55 acres of unspoiled land in Chatham's Pleasant Bay that have for decades seemed the antidote to the advances of human sprawl on Cape Cod's coastline.

Just a few hundred yards off the coast, where trophy houses and a seaside golf course spread along Pleasant Bay, foxes and deer roam Strong Island's scrub pines and rocky beaches; herons and gulls thrive in the salt marshes.

The only sign of civilization has been a single, rambling house at the top of a cliff: the home of Victor F. Horst, 92, who sold the island to a private conservation group in 1974 and still spends his summers there, with his friend Jay Cashman, the multimillionaire contractor who helped build the Big Dig.

Some conservationists in town now fear for the future of the island. Horst has filed a lawsuit asking a Land Court judge to allow him to buy back the island for $700,000, the amount he received 30 years ago and a fraction of what Strong Island would be worth today.

Horst's lawsuit argues that the Chatham Conservation Foundation violated the 1974 deal by failing to pay for a new underwater cable that delivers electricity, telephone service, and cable television to his house.

Some in Chatham worry that if Horst reacquires the island, he might be tempted to go ahead with a plan to divide the island into 10 house lots.

In 1972, the real estate investor won town approval for the development, but it led to such widespread opposition that he agreed two years later to sell the island to the foundation.

''It's a relatively pristine piece of ecology in a part of the Lower Cape that's becoming rather seriously overdeveloped now," said Andrew Young, the foundation's president. ''The [foundation] is, if anything, even more interested in preserving Strong Island than in 1974 when we first negotiated this deal to buy it."

The relationship between the town and the island's occupants was further tested by Cashman's arrival last year. In the past two summers, the town's Conservation Commission has cited Cashman, whose family has stayed at Horst's house, for several environmental violations, including cutting paths through the property without permission. The health inspector also cited the family for allowing its Shetland pony to run loose.

Some Chatham residents privately worry about Cashman's long-term plans for the triangular island, which dominates Pleasant Bay. But they are wary of exacerbating the dispute over Strong Island.

''I think it's a battleground for all of the problems of people who are trying to preserve land," said George Cooper, president of Friends of Pleasant Bay. ''Developers would like to develop it and exploit it as much as they can. Those of us who would like to keep it in its natural state are on the other side. It's a pretty wide gulf."

Cashman first visited Strong Island in 1965, when he was 12. Cashman's father ultimately decided the island house was too expensive to rent, but the son never forgot the visit. Decades later, Cashman inquired at Chatham Town Hall about the island.

He eventually made contact with the Horsts and negotiated a private deal that neither he nor they will discuss. But Cashman and his family have spent much of the past two summers on the island. Last year, he bought his own amphibious vehicle, a 1965 ''Amphicar" that drives on the road and motors through the water.

Cashman said he does not want to see development on the island, where he hopes to vacation many more years. He is embarrassed by the conflict with the Conservation Commission, he said, and is working to resolve the issues, even though he disagrees with some of the citations.

''The thing I love about that island is I get up every day in the summer and walk anywhere between 6 and 8 miles," he said. ''I love the wild. That island should be left exactly the way it is."

Strong Island was largely uninhabited until 1936, when William H. Potter Jr., a banker, bought the island and built the one-story house where the Horsts now live. Potter also received permission to install the cable beneath Pleasant Bay, bringing electricity and telephone service to the island.

Horst first visited the island in the early 1950s, when he landed his plane in a small field during a fishing expedition to the Cape. The property's caretaker, who met the plane, told him the island was for sale.

''He loved it from the first minute he saw it," said his wife, Elizabeth Horst, as she gave a golf-cart tour of the island recently.

Victor Horst jumped at the chance to buy the island and began spending summers there.

In 1974, Horst agreed to sell part of the island and donate the rest to the Chatham Conservation Foundation for $700,000. The agreement allowed him to inhabit 3 acres, including the house and several outbuildings, until 2073.

''It became evident that it was a very special place to the town," said Elizabeth Horst, who married Victor in 1980. ''The foundation approached him, and he thought it was a good idea."

For 26 years, Horst and the foundation coexisted peacefully. The foundation recently posted a sign to instruct visitors to the island to keep away from Horst's territory.

The family continued to leave Miami for summers on the island. The Horsts have no cars on the island, only golf carts that bump along the rough paths.

Bringing back groceries is a chore requiring two boat trips, a car drive, and a golf-cart trip up the hill to the house. Repairmen must be retrieved at the town dock and ferried across the bay.

In 2000, the underwater cable that snakes beneath about 1,500 feet of Pleasant Bay failed, and the Horsts lost their electricity, as well as running water.

The Horsts argue that they lost as much as $300,000 each summer because they could not rent the house.

The foundation conducted initial tests to examine the cable. But when it became evident that a new cable was necessary, the organization and the Horsts reached an impasse: Each believed that the other side was responsible for the cost.

The Horsts filed a lawsuit in Land Court in Boston, arguing that since the foundation had abdicated its responsibilities, the island should revert to the Horsts, who would return the $700,000.

Last summer, Cashman's company replaced the cable, a job he said cost more than $500,000.

Young declined to discuss the lawsuit, and the foundation's lawyer could not be reached for comment. But in a countersuit, the foundation argues that the Horsts are responsible for maintaining the underwater cable.

''We were astounded at the position the foundation chose to take," Elizabeth Horst said. ''Their refusal to act forced us into litigation. It's hard not to be furiously disillusioned by the way things were handled."

But she held out hope for a compromise.

''We'd just as soon have this settled and have it work out for everybody," she said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com. 

Elizabeth Horst made her way by boat last week to her house on Strong Island in Chatham.
Elizabeth Horst made her way by boat last week to her house on Strong Island in Chatham. (Globe Photo / Stew Milne)
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