Jun 15, 2022 - News

How to buy an island in the James River

A tree-filled island with the city in the background.
The owners of Sharp's Island in downtown Richmond offer overnight rentals on Airbnb for campers. Photo courtesy of Andy Thompson

Five years ago, Andy Thompson never thought he'd own an island. Now he owns two — and is one of more than a dozen locals who own their own piece of land in the James River.

State of play: Thompson owns Sharp's Island, which he and nine other families pooled together to buy in 2018 for $35,000 cash. A year later, Thompson and business partners bought Goat Island in Henrico, and he's in the market and eager to buy more.

Why it matters: The James River is Richmond's beloved recreation destination, and while many locals might think it belongs to everyone, whole parts of the land within it have been bought, sold and transferred going back to British rule in the colonies.

Who owns what: The state owns the water, including all of the James River, Ben Stagg, a 30-year-plus veteran with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, tells Axios.

The land is a little murkier, but clearest in the city of Richmond, which recently mapped its portion of the river islands, something Parrish Simmons, GIS project manager with the city's Assessor's Office, tells Axios is uncommon.

  • "The river mapping project was our best attempt to map out the status of the islands and their ownership," Simmons says.

Zoom in: Based on data from Simmons, there are 72 parcel IDs for islands in the Richmond part of the James River (though some islands, like Belle and Mayo, are listed with multiple parcel IDs, and in some cases, there are multiple owners of different portions of a single island).

  • Of those 72, the city of Richmond is the largest owner, with 30 island parcels between Parks and Recreation and Public Utilities.
  • The railways — CSX and Norfolk Railways — own eight islands.
  • The state Department of General Services owns 10.
  • Dominion Energy owns two.
  • Eight are privately owned by individuals or LLCs, including Thompson's Sharp's Island and Mayo Island, which went on the market in March for $19 million.
  • Seven have unknown owners.

What they're saying: "We believe that many, if not all, the unknown owner parcels are towhead islands ... islands formed by the natural flow and ebb of the river," Simmons says.

  • Simmons believes that the state would have the first claim on an island with unknown owners, but Stagg with the state marine commission says there are ways individuals could stake claims on ownership — and historically have.

How it works: "We know that the king of England would grant land ... the water and the ground below the water. If you can trace that deed, you can stake a claim," he says.

Plus: Stagg said Virginia governors would often grant land the same way in the 19th and part of the 20th centuries. But if you don't have your great-grandparents' deed from a king or former governor lying around, Stagg said there are two other common ways:

  • A quitclaim deed or simply start paying taxes on the land, which would go to the city or county where the island is located.

Flashback: In the 1990s, a Richmond businessman figured out this tax loophole and ended up paying taxes on 38 local James River islands. He sold them all individually at auction in 2005 for an undisclosed sum.

Why buy an island?: For Thompson, he says something just hit him when his real estate agent sent him the listing for Sharp's Island four years ago. As an avid outdoorsman, he loved the idea of having a private camping spot — and convinced nine of his friends to split the cost with him.

  • Now the island is a money-maker, as he rents it out on Airbnb for $71 a night for a private, urban camping experience — and it's booked every weekend through the summer.
  • He's planning to do the same with Goat Island, which he bought out from his co-owners earlier this year for $11,000.
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