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In Staten Island, a remote wilderness is threatened by encroaching development

Touring the urban wilds of the Sharrotts Shoreline on Staten Island’s southern end

On the South Shore of Staten Island, where Tappen’s Creek flows into the Arthur Kill, a remote wilderness has taken root on forgotten land. Deer and woodchucks wander through forests filled with abandoned cars; geese and ducks paddle around marshlands littered with engine blocks; and ospreys nest in a boat graveyard.

This is the Sharrotts Shoreline, a unique maritime habitat that has somehow managed to thrive, even after decades of neglect. Isolated and almost inaccessible, the secluded coastline here is part of the rural neighborhood of Charleston, where the narrow roads are lined with Victorian homes, ancient cemeteries, and active horse stables. There are no signs or public paths connecting this community to its shoreline, which is perhaps one reason why the wildlife here has flourished.

But a large portion of Charleston’s undeveloped natural areas may soon be sold off and bulldozed to make way for industrial development. This March, 24.5 acres of land in the neighborhood were put on the market for $23 million by Kalmon Dolgin, including eight acres of waterfront property at the end of Sharrotts Road, and 16 acres of woodlands nearby, off Arthur Kill Road.

The sale of these properties threatens to destroy centuries-old burial grounds, historic oyster middens, a purple martin colony, butterfly habitats, marshes, and wetlands, while also endangering the flow of Tappen’s Creek, which runs undisturbed along its original route.

On a recent weekend, the Protectors of Pine Oak Woods led a walk through this rugged urban wilderness, sharing insights into their efforts to preserve its diverse ecologies. The walk began at an overgrown street end, where a scattering of signs hidden in the bushes indicated that we were entering a preserve managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Twenty-five acres of the Sharrotts Shoreline are now part of a protected DEC Natural Resource Area, thanks in part to the advocacy work of the Protectors.

This protected parkland is located just next door to the eight-acre waterfront site that is being sold. While strolling through the DEC property, Don Recklies, the first vice president of the Protectors and the leader of that day’s walk, pointed out an array of trees and plants that have taken root on the preserved area, ranging from cottonwoods and white mulberry to milkweed and shadbush. “It’s a fairly small area, but it’s really nice,” says Recklies. “Come here in a month or two, and it’s a great place for butterflies!”

Before being acquired by the state, these 25 acres were far from pristine. “Way back when, this was a party spot for teenagers, a place to race your motorcycle, and a place to dump your car,” says Recklies. “Before the state came in, I went into the site and photographed and mapped all of the wrecks I could find. I found 63 wrecked cars.”

In 2007, the Trust For Public Land began facilitating the acquisition of this land, and soon after, the DEC conducted an extensive cleanup. The abandoned cars were carted away, flotsam was hauled up off the beaches, and almost all of the sunken boats and barges that once lined the shoreline were auctioned off to salvage companies, who broke them up for scrap, leaving behind an inviting stretch of sandy beachfront. “The state came in and did a great job taking all these wrecks out,” says Recklies. “Ninety percent are gone.”

As the walk continued, however, the narrow footpaths soon led out of the DEC’s preserve, and into the neighboring properties that are now for sale. The change in ecosystems was unnoticeable, with the woodlands, meadows and marshes extending unimpeded across both properties. But wreckage and dumping on the private land were immediately apparent.

At the mouth of Tappen’s Creek, where it empties into the polluted industrial waters of the Arthur Kill, car parts and tires were scattered across a high marshland, while in a nearby forest, abandoned trucks and televisions tumbled down a hillside. Deer roamed freely through the woods and hawks circled overhead, but the mountains of debris spelled out the need for a governmental intervention.

With over 12,300 acres of parkland, Staten Island is sometimes called “The Greenest Borough” and “The Borough of Parks.” Nearly one-third of the borough’s 38,507 acres of land are protected from development. But does the island really have so much green space that it can allow property owners to use their woodlands as private dumps, or allow developers to bulldoze forests and wetlands?

For the Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, who have been fighting to preserve green space on Staten Island for over 40 years, the answer is simple. “We are not making any more land like this,” says Recklies. “It would be a shame to lose it.”

The main access point to the DEC’s Natural Resource Area along the Sharrotts Shoreline is located at the overgrown dead-end of Androvette Street, next to a truck parking lot. There is no official pathway into the preserve here, but signs are mounted around its perimeter, marking out the boundaries of the state-owned lands.

An access road cuts down into the DEC property from the truck parking lot. During the Protectors’ recent walk, the owner of the lot allowed the group to enter the preserve by passing through his property.

As the group entered in to the DEC lands, they immediately began to notice a wide variety of flora and fauna, including a patch of oyster mushrooms growing on the piles of tree trunks. The walk leader, Don Recklies, paused to point out some of the site’s unique natural features, including the various species of trees growing here, ranging from black willows to invasive Russian olive trees.

The same stretch of Sharrotts Shoreline as seen in 2006, when the landscape was littered with dozens of abandoned cars, and the beaches covered over by sunken barges. Today, almost all of these wrecks have been hauled away from the state-owned land.

The shoreline of the DEC land is now largely free of debris, and the Protectors organize regular cleanups to help maintain the property. “We did a cleanup all along here last month, and I think we got 800 pounds of trash,” says Recklies. “Most of it comes in with the tides and storms.”

Looking down the Arthur Kill towards the Outerbridge Crossing. At low tide, mussels and salt grass are revealed. Just south of the DEC property is the former site of the Kreischer brick factory, which dates back to the 1850s, when the Charleston area was known as Kreischerville.

A last few remnants of sunken boats remain in the water. “They just dumped them on the shoreline, to rot,” says Ray Matarazzo, a member of the Protectors who was along for the walk. Today, ospreys nest on these offshore wrecks. “They became little natural islands.”

Looking north along a wide stretch of sandy beach, once covered over by rusty cars and barges. The history of human activity along the Arthur Kill can be traced back many centuries. “All along the shoreline here, these are Paleo-Indian sites, going back 10 or 12 thousand years ago,” says Matarazzo, a retired science curator for the Staten Island Museum. “The oldest Native American artifacts in the museum were found here.”

Just north of the DEC property line, at the mouth of Tappen’s Creek, artifacts from more recent human activity are readily apparent. This stretch of shoreline is part of the 8-acre site being offered for sale, and is still littered with abandoned car parts.

Tappen’s Creek empties out the the Arthur Kill here, following the same path shown on maps dating back to at least 1896. The creek was also once known as Gene’s Creek, and flows down from Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, a 265-acre natural area nearby.

The Protectors of Pine Oak Woods walk ended at the edge of Tappen’s Creek, but the trail system here continues further north along the Sharrotts Shoreline, sometimes following what appear to be deer trails.

The route of Tappen’s Creek cuts inland, meandering through wild marshes, wetlands and woods, with fiddler crabs lining its banks. This section of the creek sits on property that is also being sold for development.

As it wanders through a forested area, the creek cuts through an old oyster midden, where discarded oyster shells are stacked up into a high pile. These sites are often of great archaeological interest, with other artifacts often mixed in to the oyster shells. The midden is one of several in the area, and could date back to either the colonial era or to earlier Native American settlements. “You can still see Native American artifacts around Charleston,” says Matarazzo, who has extensively explored this section of Tappen’s Creek.

Further inland along its route, the creek passes through a wetlands area situated alongside Ellis Road. According to maps, the flow of the creek here is much the same as it was over 100 years ago.

The section of Tappen’s Creek between Ellis Road and the Sharrotts Shoreline properties also has a “For Sale” sign posted on it, and in 2012, the Staten Island Advance reported that developers were interested in building a big box store here, displacing 57 acres of wetlands and forest.

Up above Tappen’s Creek, at the end of Sharrotts Road, a meadow and woodlands are part of the 8-acre waterfront property that is being offered up for sale.

A portion of this property is currently maintained by neighbors, who have installed birdhouses for a purple martin colony. “The inky, iridescent birds winter in Brazil and migrate some 4,000 miles to return to their digs,” according to the Staten Island Advance. “It would be a shame if they sell that land. It’s so full of wildlife,” says one neighbor, who lives across the street from the Sharrotts Road development property. “It doesn’t make any sense, because just down the hill, you are on protected State land.”

Deer wander through the wildflower meadows here, while numerous hawks circle overhead, hunting for dinner.

The “For Sale” signs here only appeared in the last week, but are now nailed to trees throughout the Sharrotts Road woodlands, and at the nearby property along Arthur Kill Road. These two sites are zoned for commercial development.

Despite the presence of so much flora and fauna, the eight-acre property along Sharrotts Road is in rough condition, with abandoned trucks and cars scattered around, and hundreds of tires dumped in the woods.

Below the purple martin colony, an old dumping ground tumbles down a steep slope, out towards Tappen’s Creek. This dump mainly contains household debris, including doors and televisions, and an abandoned car wrapped around a tree. The Protectors of Pine Oak Woods hope that some portion of this 8-acre property can be preserved and restored. “If they could subdivide the property and sell it in pieces, that would be ideal,” says Recklies. “That would probably be the best outcome we could hope for.”

The dumping at this site extends all the way to the eastern edge of the property, where it abuts a new industrial park. “I don’t think there is any hope for preserving the high land—it’s too developable,” says Recklies. “These commercial opportunities are very enticing.”

Sharrotts Road was once a rural dirt road, and is still lined with open lots and woodlands, but increasingly, the landscape here has been replaced by warehouses. “This town, Charleston, is like the last frontier,” says Matarazzo. “But little by little they are building all over it.”

The historic homes of Charleston are now being squeezed in by new commercial development sites. “Much of the area is zoned for commercial use. So, although there is much open space, in some places auto body, trucking and bus companies are built right next to, behind or across from residences,” according to a 2010 New York Times article.

At the intersection of Arthur Kill Road and Androvette Street, the second section of the site for sale encompasses a 16 acre wooded lot. This property is being sold as part of the same package that includes the Sharrotts Road properties.

The woodlands here have also been used as an extensive dumping round, with tires, cars, and an entire trailer left to rot. The entire 24 acre site being sold encompasses 5 lots, and over one million square feet of land, according to the Kalmon Dolgin listing. Although littered with abandoned cars, the woodlands here are also home to woodchucks, deer, and other wild animals. “All these tiny woodlots were natural oases, and places for kids to go play outdoors,” says Recklies.

Further in to the property, where there is less dumping, small footpaths lead through the woods. A number of horse stables are located next to this property, with bridle trails meandering along the north end of the site. This 16 acre property is located between Sharrotts Road and Englewood Avenue, adjacent to the Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve.

The potential for this woodlands to be restored and preserved as part of an open green space is self-evident, but for now, whoever buys it can bulldoze the natural areas here, and replace them with a warehouse.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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