Island Swapping

Following generations of ownership by private landowners, the state of Ohio recently purchased nearly 600 acres of North Bass Island for more than $17 million as part of its plan to create new Lake Erie public parks just a short boat ride away.

It's one of Ohio's last great recreational frontiers, a mysterious place that has remained privately owned since the Lake Erie Islands were divvied up between the United States and the then-British province of Canada after the War of 1812. Thanks to recent moves by the state, the public will finally one day be able to explore it.

In April, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources completed the purchase of 589 acres, or 87 percent, of North Bass Island from Meier's Wine Cellars of Silverton, Ohio, for $17.4 million in state and federal funds. The island, historically used for grape production, is the largest remaining undeveloped island in the Lake Erie archipelago, and its near-shore waters are among the Great Lakes' most productive sport-fish spawning grounds. The just-purchased land includes nearly 2.5 miles of undeveloped shoreline and 58 acres of natural coastal wetlands that are habitats for several threatened and endangered species.

"To be able to set it aside from private development, to look at it for future preservation and use, is exciting to us," says Scott Doty, regional manager of Lake Erie Islands State Parks.

But don't make plans to visit North Bass Island just yet. Doty says the state will take its time developing a park on the land, approximately 85 acres of which will remain under lease to Sandusky-based Firelands Vineyards for at least three years. There's little else to see on the island's remaining 88 acres right now: a public airport, a one-room schoolhouse, a church, a cemetery and a dozen private homes.

"Our main focus in development and planning," Doty says, "is Middle Bass State Park."

Visitors are already welcome to stroll the 123.5-acre former Lonz Winery property on nearby Middle Bass Island, which was acquired by the state from Paramount Distilleries in 2001. The Miller Boat Line, 1-800-500-2421, offers daily ferry service for both passengers and vehicles to the island from its Catawba Point dock. The park includes wetlands and glacial grooves located just south of the winery's marina.

The state has also replaced the docks with wider, more stable counterparts — there are 50 slips (30 with electrical hookups) and wall dockage for approximately 20 boats — and added a playground and nine-hole putt-putt golf course. At press time, Doty expΩcted trailers with flush toilets and showers to replace the port-a-pots sometime in July. But the antiquated water- and sewage-treatment systems must be replaced before a campground with restrooms and cottages can be built on the property. And the winery's historic castellated stone structure, which has remained closed to the public since a terrace collapsed in July 2000, requires extensive renovation before it can house the restaurant, conference facilities and craft shops that have been discussed. The same goes for the beautiful old residence of former winery owner George Lonz. There has been some talk of turning the house, located across the road from the ferry docks, into a bed-and-breakfast.

ïThere are some concerns about the foundation, and the raccoons have definitely been able to run free in there," Doty says of the home. "We've boarded up all the windows, and they've actually chewed through some siding and gotten back in."

Officials expect to present a master plan to the public sometime this summer, according to Doty.

"Once the master plan is presented and [finalized], then they'll look at starting appropriate funding through capital improvements and other processes," he says. Ideas and comments on the development of both parks can be e-mailed to

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