A moat of one's own

Growing numbers of rich and famous are buying island homes as their answer to post-9/11 insecurity.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Along with the finches and waxwings that stop over on their way south, the privileged classes also flock to Figure Eight Island: Protected by a marshy moat and a guarded bridge, the island is home to politicians, media magnates, and even that most famous Carolinian, Andy Griffith.

In fact, this five-mile-long island, near Wilmington, N.C., is so secluded that even the most famous leave their doors unlocked. "You can feel the physical protection around you," says islander James Mitchener, a retired surgeon from Laurinburg, N.C., who was trudging around the island in a wind-whipped parka.

Once but a scrubby dune, Figure Eight Island is the northernmost point of the private isles of the American South, where the hip and fab are opting in growing numbers for ultimate segregation. And their arrival is having an impact: On Figure Eight, where a cottage once cost around $35,000 in the mid-1970s, today's cheapest house goes for $635,000.

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Experts say this hunt for remote paradise is a desire to escape a growing crush of gossipmongers and paparazzi - not to mention post-9/11 insecurities. Guarded islands have become "part of the privatization of security, where rich people are essentially purchasing what used to be considered a public good - privacy, security, and so on," says Peter Whalley, a Loyola University sociologist in Chicago. "They're increasingly seeking private space of their own."

But in some cases, this heightened desire for privileged privacy is sidelining established island cultures. On Tybee Island, off the coast of Georgia, the town council voted recently to create a historic district after an estimated 150 historic structures on the island disappeared under new development within 10 years.

The drifts of barrier islands that span from St. Simons Island, Ga., to Figure Eight in North Carolina have been popular retreats for the rich since the late 1800s, when birders from the North first discovered Jekyll Island off Georgia - and industrialists like Joseph Pulitzer and J.P. Morgan built mansion-like hunt lodges. And for a long time these low-country isles were thought of as nothing more than overgrown rice plantations. But today's crush of development is unheralded: All along the coast, dozens of once-undesirable, mosquito-ridden islands are packed with homes - many with private guards. Once the haunts of former slave families, crabbers, and pirates, the so-called Golden Isles have in the past decade been transformed into million-dollar "moated communities."

"Privacy matters to us," says resident Mitchener of Figure Eight. With the island's proximity to the Wilmington film lots, it seems everyone from Tom Hanks to Tom Cruise has a local rental. One presidential aspirant, Sen. John Edwards, has a home here.

Tiny Sea Island, Ga., one of the most secluded alcoves of the barrier isles with its own "millionaire's row," will host next year's G-8 summit. "Security played a major role in that decision," says Cullen Chambers, the executive director of Georgia's Tybee Island Historical Society.

On Harbour Island, in Tampa, Fla., professional hockey players schmooze with the likes of retired Gen. Tommy Franks while guards patrol in boats and lasers scan for loiterers. It's by far one of the most secure civilian neighborhoods in the country. After her husband's recent duty in Iraq, Cathy Franks, the general's wife, insisted on the move.

And this summer, the tabloids have been desperate to get close to mega-couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's new "oyster shack" on a privately owned island near Savannah.

"The moat thing gives the few people who have a chance to do it an extra level of security," says Mary Gail Snyder, a New Orleans sociologist and coauthor of "Fortress America," a critical look at gated communities. "It's definitely an issue of turning away from feeling part of the common realm and saying, 'This small space that I can control, this is what I want.'"

The local "hands off" attitude that goes back to the region's rumrunning days makes the insular and self-protective culture all the more appealing to those seeking privacy. On Tybee Island, for example, where actress Sandra Bullock has a home, locals will feign ignorance of where she lives.

But sometimes it's an uneasy truce: Many island people resent their rich new neighbors who are, in the words of one resident, "literally loving these places to death."

The islands are becoming nothing more than audacious displays of prestige that physically separates the country's power brokers from the citizenry, critics say, and are, in some places, wreaking havoc on seaside ecologies and traditional island peoples. Mr. Chambers of Tybee Island says the trend toward high-dollar gated islands threatens to "damage, if not destroy, the very essence of the community."

Along with concerns of erosion come debates over whether public monies should help subsidize the protection of high-density, million-dollar neighborhoods. Indeed, developers are eyeing dozens of other spits among the Golden Isles and pushing for higher-density zoning. "Nothing stays for sale for long around here," says Mitchener, pulling his parka tighter.

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