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Psst ... Wanna Buy an Island?

Chittenden County's priciest property listing is in the middle of Converse Bay

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Back in 1973, Bill Bartels was thumbing through the New York Times when he saw an ad for a private island for sale in Vermont.

He phoned the listing agent and learned the property was on Garden Island, a Lake Champlain hideaway off the coast of Charlotte believed to have been the summer retreat of President William Howard Taft. The compound had a “main house” with exquisite woodwork and original 1800s fireplaces, along with five cottages — all with electricity, water and septic — set on 30 acres nestled around a protected waterfront.

Bartels and two business partners — brothers Robert and James Brown — hopped a plane from New York to Burlington the next day to investigate the rare find.

“We had a rowboat and a little five-horsepower motor, and we plowed across in early March — there were some broken ice floes still there,” Bartels recalls. “We got on the island and found there was just a very amazing place. Everything was boarded up and dusty and musty, but we all recognized the true magic of the place.”

Bartels and the Browns, then young men in their thirties, loved the property. They spent two years putting the financing together, then bought it for $150,000.

Now, 35 years later, with their children grown, the owners have put the island retreat on the market at a price as big as the bathtub once used by President Taft: $7.9 million. The estate’s $19,652 yearly property tax bill is just as eye-popping. (The retreat takes up most, but not all, of the island, which also has three small, independently owned properties.)

That asking price buys not just the six houses, but a Victorian “viewing tower,” a pontoon boat, three tractors, a winch house, kayaks, a gazebo, four rowboats, steel-frame docks and loads of Adirondack chairs. In short, everything needed to run a summertime retreat that has been luring vacationers to its secluded, sandy shores for years.

Question is, in today’s market, will it sell?

Garden Island is currently the third most expensive property on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) maintained by the Vermont Real Estate Information Network. Only a palatial $16 million estate on Upper Springs Road in Stowe and the 1900-acre Smokeshire Valley Preserve retreat in Chester, listed at $14.5 million, boast higher asking prices.

It’s among several multimillion-dollar Vermont properties that have languished unsold for months while a battered real estate market struggles to recover. To the south, in Dover, a 36-acre private resort with a nine-hole golf course, priced at $3.2 million, has been on the market almost two years. A 90-acre property in Londonderry listed at $4.9 million — which has three houses, a pool, ponds, tennis courts and “meandering trails” — has been listed for about 640 days.

The Garden Island retreat went on the market last May. Eight prospective buyers have toured the island, though none has yet made an offer, listing agent Debbie Fortier says.

“This recession has affected people from all walks of life,” says Fortier, an agent with Coldwell Banker Bill Beck Real Estate in Middlebury. “It has slowed the market down considerably for second homes, as this would be.”

Once a series of individually owned beachfront strips, the Garden Island land was bought, sold and consolidated throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1947, an orthopedic surgeon from Bristol, David Bosworth, and his family purchased the property. A church group owned another portion of the island until recently. It was the Bosworths who sold the retreat to Bartels and the Browns in 1975.

Bartels and Robert Brown, who grew up childhood friends in New York City, now helm the international retail marketing and merchandising company SPAR Group Inc., with Brown as chairman and Bartels as vice chairman. James Brown is a lawyer who lives in the Boston area. Garden Island’s main house, Maple House, was the summer getaway for Bartels, the Brown brothers and their families for more than three decades.

“Whole generations of partners’ children have grown up on the island, kids crawling around on the deck,” says Bartels.

The real estate brochure for Garden Island describes it as the ideal place to “laze away” the summer. Maple House is a classic Victorian summer cottage with six bedrooms, three refrigerators, a wraparound porch, parquet floors, a game room and three bathrooms — one of which includes Taft’s oversized tub.

The other five cottages — Cedar, Oak, Birch, Pine and Willow — were mostly built between 1900 and the 1950s and feature screened-in porches, decks and fireplaces.

With a septic system and electricity fed from the mainland by underwater cable, Garden Island is a bit more developed than most Champlain islands, realtors say. But it maintains a rustic flavor. The houses aren’t insulated. Drinking water comes from the lake and is purified using ultraviolet filters. Guests arrive by a pontoon boat that takes eight minutes to cross Converse Bay. The aquatic shuttle service, which provides a couple of summer jobs for college students, is available to guests 24/7 as long as they stay.

Over the years, the island’s dramatic cliffs and impressive mountain views have lured a mix of newlyweds, families and minor celebrities, such as CBS News anchor Charles Osgood and a team doctor for the New York Rangers. The cottages fetch rates that range from $1270 to $2730 per week, and they fill up fast: Summer 2010 is already 80 percent booked, Bartels says.

Bartels says he and his partners decided to sell after getting a slightly “aggressive” sales pitch from Debbie Fortier and Ray Fortier, also a realtor at Coldwell Banker. It’s somewhat “difficult” to think about selling the island property after so long, he adds, but “life goes on.”

Pricing the property on Garden Island wasn’t easy, Fortier and Bartels say. Fortier looked at islands that sold in Maine, New Hampshire and New York for “comparables.” She also looked for clues on the website privateislandsonline.com, where she advertised the Garden Island estate. But nothing offered an exact match.

“Not many of these islands have six homes on them,” she notes.

Privately owned Champlain islands of any kind rarely come up for sale — maybe once every 10 years, by one realtor’s guess. Fish Bladder Island, a speck of land between South Hero and Milton, sold for more than $1 million to a couple from Greenwich, Conn., in 2005, two years before a devastating fire reduced the island’s historic lodge to a pile of smoldering ruins.

The high price of insuring an island — against fire, theft and weather — may contribute to making it a tough sell. Shoreline property taxes and logistical challenges can also be deterrents.

Garden Island has been on the market for almost 300 days now. Fortier declines to reveal the names of any of the estate’s potential buyers, but says they include Vermonters and out-of-staters. Notably absent from the mix: Canadians.

“I am a bit surprised, because a lot of Canadians like to look at something on the lake,” Fortier says. “A lot of them bring boats down. It would be a lovely place for someone from Montréal to come down to.”

Could the list price be the problem? It is more than six times the property’s assessed value of $1.3 million, as determined by the town of Charlotte. But that’s not so unusual, local realtors agree.

“This is a pretty aggressive price, but then I don’t know what you compare it to, because this is Vermont,” says Dottie Waller, a Charlotte real estate agent who owns a camp on a half-acre plot on Garden Island. “How many islands are there on the lake? And how many islands are there like this?”

If the Garden Island retreat does go for even close to its list price, it will set a record for the most expensive MLS property sold in Chittenden County. Currently, that record is held by the former lakefront home of Jon Fishman, who sold his Quaker Smith Point property in Sheblurne for $3.85 million in 2005.

While the market for pricey estates isn’t booming, Fortier suggests the “normal” rules for real estate don’t necessarily apply to a property like this one, which is worth as much as someone who wants to live there will pay.

Will the island weather the downturn the way it’s survived centuries of harsh lake storms and gales? That’s the $7.9 million question. At least today.

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