A Nest for New York's Rat Island?

Aerial shot of islands including City Centre and smaller surrounding islands.

Doc Searls / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Remember Alex Schibli, the grandpa from the Bronx (City Island if you want to get technical) who, last year, snagged himself a 2.5-acre private island in Long Island Sound for less than what it costs for most New York City studio apartments?

The New York Post recently caught up with Schibli, 72, to see how things are going with his $172,000 (it was originally reported that he bought the undeveloped rocky outcrop at auction for $160K, but $172K is still peanuts) investment. Well, things are going exactly as one would expect on the nightmarishly named Rat Island. As summer sets in, he's been sun tanning, picnicking, and fending off giant, amphibious rodents with a large piece of driftwood. Says Schibli: “I love swimming, canoeing and collecting mussels — and we’re going to have lots of fun with my family. There’ll be picnics, barbecues and the occasional party, but, more than anything, we’re just going to relax.”

Right on.

Schibli initially claimed that he had no plans to build a structure of any sort on the island, which, by the way, is zoned as residential and is apparently the only truly privately owned island of all the 44 islands in and around New York City (Manhattan and Staten Island included). He told the Post last October: “Some developers might build something on top of the island if they got their hands on it, but I believe it should be conserved, kept as is."

Now, it looks like Schibli has had a slight change of heart and has vocalized his desire to eventually build a family vacation home on Rat Island. This is all a bit wild considering that Schibli, a Swiss-born, "Swiss Family Robinson"-obsessed retired engineer for the Port Authority, already has a view of the island from his home on City Island that's just a quarter mile away. How many folks can clearly see their vacation homes from the backyards of their non-vacation homes? Not too many, I'm guessing.

Anyways, Schibli imagines that any potential family retreat would naturally be off the grid and include solar panels and a rainwater catchment system and be constructed from reclaimed wood. He also envisions that the home would be stilted given that the giant slab of rock can be completely submerged during strong storms and that most of it disappears during high tides. Still, structures have indeed been erected on the island in the past including (supposedly) a quarantine hospital for typhoid patients in the 1800s and later a cottage for writers and artists that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1938.

According to a 2011 New York Times interview with Red Brennen, a retired marine contractor who owned the island before Schibli, a green architect/designer had previously expressed interest in building a "sustainable showcase house" on the island. That, obviously, never happened.

"There are a lot of interesting designs out there,” Schibli — "a regular at conferences on eco-friendly, zero-energy housing" — tells the Post. He adds: “... people don’t have to worry. It [the home] will blend in with the scenery and won’t be an eyesore.” As of now, the only things that Schibli has added to his island paradise are an American flag and a couple of private property signs.

If Schibli ultimately does apply for permits to build a self-sufficient, non-eyesore-y home on Rat Island and decides not to rename it back to Rattle Island as he's reportedly plotting to do, I suggest that he dub his new digs as the “The Rat’s Nest. C’mon now, it’s absolutely perfect.

And in case you were wondering: according to local folklore, the island was bestowed with its current, abbreviated name not because of the presence of vermin, but because escaped 19th century prisoners ("rats") from a jail on nearby Hart Island would use the island as a hide-out spot before swimming to City Island, and then, eventually the mainland.