Published Tuesday, January 01, 2013
BY TERRY DICKSON
THE FLORIDA TIMES-UNION
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. (AP) – It's happened a lot of times on this barrier island. A new owner picks up a piece of land and an old path or set of woods is suddenly fenced off or has some no trespassing signs.
A St. Simons Island couple want to do the opposite: They want to keep their recent acquisition open for those who have worn a footpath across it and to preserve that access into the future.
"The public has been using it for years," said Julian Smith. "We assume they want to keep using it.
He and his wife, Hannah Smith, have owned a house on the island for about 20 years. As a Christmas present, they're inviting the public to come take a walk on their land.
It started with another special day, Valentine's Day, when she bought a 2,100-foot-long piece of marsh that is 200-feet wide in the west and narrows to 100 feet on the east. Along the middle of part of the 11 1/2 linear acres is a dike created when someone - some have guessed slaves - tossed the marsh mud on the south side of what would become a long drainage ditch.
Kids have worn a path through the marsh and along the top of the dike for years. Not only does she want them to keep coming, she wants to assure they can do walk that dike as long as they like.
Asked why she bought it in the first place, she said, "They were willing to sell it."
The Smiths split time between St. Simons and Durham, N.H., where Julian Smith, a 75-year-old retired University of Florida professor of film studies, has served in town government.
When Hannah Smith, now 71, was out for a walk, she found a path into the marsh and followed it to another along the dike. Wondering who owned it, she found her answer in Glynn County property records.
"I wrote (the owners) a letter and asked if they would want to sell their land," she said.
She offered them $8,500, $1,000 more than the assessed value. The owners, who live in Cobb County, made a counter offer and they settled on $11,500.
"I've already had an offer," she laughed.
The prospective buyers probably don't understand that most of it is protected marsh.
"We're at 49 this year," he said of the years they've been married, "as we go for the gold."
There is one rather amazing coincidence. On the day she was striking her deal, her husband was in a dentist's chair in New Hampshire.
He knew his dentist owned a vacant lot and asked what he planned to do with it.
"Pay taxes on it," the dentist said.
"Would you like to sell it?" Smith asked.
"Who would buy it?" the dentist responded.
"I pushed his hand out of his mouth, and we made a deal. I wrote him a check before I left the office," Smith said.
She didn't tell him about her purchase until she traveled up to New Hampshire in March for their anniversary.
Julian Smith said he wants the public to be able to use that land if they want.
They've cleared some impediments from the trail and Hannah Smith's iPad has a collection of sunrise and moonrise photos shot from a high spot on the dike.
They've been in discussions with the St. Simons Land Trust and may talk to the Trust for Public Lands on how best to keep it open. The best access is along neighbor's land, but the most worn access is through the common area in the small Settlers Point subdivision.
They have some experience in access. They were working now to link trails along a farm the own in Durham, N.H., to a public trail system in the town.
"Some of the trails on that map," he said of Durham's system, "aren't protected."
Adding his may make the system too popular to reduce, he said.
They also want to make sure that it is kept natural because some other public accesses have hardened paths.
"The emphasis needs to be on access that isn't asphalt or concrete," he said.
But for now, a wrought iron sign hanging from an oak says, "Welcome, Hannah's Marsh." It was shaped by a blacksmith in New Hampshire, Julian Smith said.
Other paper signs on trees welcome visitors with an admonition to "leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures."
As they walked out their grandson, Milo Silvasmith, 8, of Gainesville, showed them he had picked up a sports drink bottle part of the refuse likely washed in by a high tide.
"We need to revise that sign to say `'take nothing but pictures and litter,'" Julian Smith said.
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com
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