Friday, February 28, 2014

Reaching Delaware without the toll: the odd case of Kilcohook

Is it wrong for a loyal Jerseyperson to want to invade Delaware?

I'm not talking about the whole state, just the part you can walk to from New Jersey, toll free.

Yup, you read that correctly: we share a two mile land border with the Blue Hen State. Most maps don't do much to point it out, but a small sliver of land next to Finns Point National Cemetery in Salem County is technically part of Delaware.

To understand how New Jersey got cheated out of the acreage, we have to go back more than 260 years and beyond the peninsula that, by all rights, should be all Garden State.

First off, you'll note that the upper portion of Delaware forms an arc. It was originally drawn in a 12 mile radius from New Castle, as directed in a deed granted by the Duke of York to William Penn in 1682. The arc stopped at the low water mark on the New Jersey shoreline because the Duke had already granted the land beyond to John Berkeley, Lord of Stratton, in 1664. It's kind of an odd situation, as our other nautical borders are determined either by the center of the body of water, or the lowest elevation of the waterway.

So if the arc ends at the low water line where Berkeley's grant starts, then why does a two-mile long stretch of the New Jersey/Delaware boundary sit on dry land?

Sometime in the early 1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers started dredging the Delaware River to improve navigation up to the Port of Philadelphia. They had to put the dredge spoils somewhere, and apparently the remote, undeveloped coastline at Pennsville seemed a good option. The vast majority of human neighbors are already six feet under at Finns Point, and they weren't complaining.

The new land grew over the years, with about 580 acres of it rising above the low-water mark to become defacto Delaware territory. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt designated the full 1400+ acres as the Kilcohook Wildlife Refuge, a pitstop for migratory waterfowl like pintail ducks and teal. Eventually, though, continued dumping drove away avian visitors, and the plot was transferred to the Army Corps as a "coordination area" in 1998. Fortunately for the birds, the existing land to the east was designated the "Goose Pond Addition" to Kilcohook in 1961, later becoming Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

New Jersey has taken Delaware to court over the boundary issue three times in the past century. In the 2007 dispute, Trenton legislators even light-heartedly considered sending the Battleship New Jersey to defend the territory. All three cases went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against us every time. (The two dissenting justices in the 2007 decision, Scalia and Alito, were born in Trenton, though their provenance seems to have had nothing to do with their opinions.). None of those decisions, however, specifically involved the dredge spoils area, whose jurisdiction remained a local issue.

As you can imagine, policing the area can be problematic. The Army Corps claims no responsibility, and technically, the Pennsville police had no jurisdiction. The spot was a magnet for mischief for partiers and a de-facto chop shop for car thieves. They knew the chances of being arrested and prosecuted were slim. When local law enforcement called the Delaware State Police to handle incidents on the acreage, it took troopers an hour to get there.

Finally, in 1989, the Delaware secretary of state agreed that this small slice of the First State could, indeed, be subject to New Jersey law. Pennsville police can now enter the territory to keep the peace and investigate wrongdoing. But I still wonder if they could get me for crossing the boundary and declaring the land to be the dominion of Nova Caesaria. Not that I would ever actually do it.


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