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An Island of Off-the-Grid Homes, Just 50 Miles From Times Square

When evening comes, it is fatigue that pulls the blanket of darkness over the homes of Oak Island. Most lights wink out by 10 p.m. The habit is a …

An Island of Off-the-Grid Homes, Just 50 Miles From Times Square

When evening comes, it is fatigue that pulls the blanket of darkness over the homes of Oak Island. Most lights wink out by 10 p.m. The habit is a holdover from the days of candles and kerosene lamps, before solar panels and lithium batteries lighted this mile-long island on Long Island’s southern shore, near Fire Island.

Self-sufficiency is tiring. There is no public electricity on Oak Island, no public water, no trash collection, no postal or emergency services. There is not a single store or restaurant. A boardwalk connects the houses. Step off it and you might trudge through briers and poison ivy.

“If you come over here, you have to be a very hearty soul,” said Marie Liddle, 81, who closed up her house after Labor Day, marking her 80th summer on the island. “You have to be able to do almost everything by yourself.”

There are 52 houses here, two less than federal and state restrictions allow. This ensures a single row of homes and the preservation of a pristine barrier beach meadow. Each home comes with two docks, including one across a narrow channel on Jones Beach Island, where residents have a key to a gated parking lot off Ocean Parkway. There are a couple of houses on the island currently on the market — each for less than $500,000.

Because everything arrives by boat, construction and furnishing decisions must be “deliberate and modest,” said Betty Rexrode, 55, a Manhattanite who bought a vine-snarled, 19th century cottage here for $287,000 in 2006 with Michael Chirigos, 56, her husband and partner in Rexrode Chirigos Architects, based in Manhattan. They liked being a world apart but just about 50 miles from Times Square.

Betty Rexrode, a Manhattan architect, is one of several Oak Island homeowners who raise shellfish in the Great South Bay, continuing a centuries old tradition. Each oyster filters about 50 gallons of water daily. Credit…Tom Sibley for The New York Times

“As architects, we wanted to push the extent of self-sufficiency and off-the-grid living,” Ms. Rexrode said. When they cleared the weeds, they discovered beech plum and wild cherries. They learned to dig clams and catch crabs. In two years, they installed a bathroom inside to replace one in an outdoor shed. Their first solar panel, hooked to a boat battery, powered a 12-volt pump for an electric water turbine that supplied instant hot water. Propane fed the gas lamps.

Now six solar panels supply 100 percent of their electricity and their house is a lightly furnished aerie with a Jura cappuccino maker. Their son, Philip, 17, has a room with a Wi-Fi hot spot and a desk, while their daughter Helen, 19, prefers one just big enough for a full bed, books in the eaves, and a window on the bay. She calls it “The Nest.”

“Work Island,” instead of Oak Island, that’s what some of us call it,” said JoAnne Ellis, with a short laugh. Ms. Ellis, 68, a retired public school art teacher has owned a circa 1883, three- bedroom home here for 23 years. She illustrated a diary of the work done by her husband, Scott Waddell, 72, a retired high-rise construction manager, who carted 600 bags of concrete to create a basement, and installed fixtures with salvaged parts, like a granite sink from the first Bergdorf Goodman’s. The couple’s rewards include a widow’s walk with 360 degree views and a great blue heron perched outside the kitchen for the last four summers.

The town of Babylon owns the island; homeowners pay a $1,800 fee to lease their land, which is added to the town’s annual taxes. Homeowners also pay an annual fee of $2,500 to the Great South Bay Isles Association for maintenance of community property, such as a repair to the floating docks off the parking lot. The association’s directors are elected by and composed of island homeowners. The lease, expected to be automatically renewed in 2065, limits occupancy to seasonal summer use.

Some islanders bring their own drinking water and rely on rainwater funneled from the rooftop, routed into pipes and collected in cisterns. A battery-operated pump then draws this water to sinks, toilets, and showers. Some, like Ms. Ellis and Mr. Waddell, installed wells whose cost was shared with three other homes. (The drilling rigs have to be small enough to fit on a barge.) Energy from solar panels and batteries powers televisions and sound systems, and power tools. Wi-Fi is accessed through cellphones.

“Most people today spend a lot of money modernizing and fixing up the house,” said Tom Morris, who still collects rainwater at the home he’s had since 1959. “They don’t look like the old shacks they used to be.”

The vinyl-covered bungalow belonging to Mr. Morris and his wife, Elaine, is one of eight houses on the island’s east end, where the boardwalk ends and there are open sky views of the Great South Bay and the mint-green Great South Bay Bridge. Mr. Morris was a Newsday reporter and editor for 42 years. The name of his first boat was “Copy Boy.” Today, “Lady Catherine,” a 23-foot runabout, ferries the couple to the island.

The Babylon Fire Department services the island. Geography necessitates that its homeowners be “first responders.” Residents rely on a pump truck in the island firehouse.Credit…Tom Sibley for The New York Times

“We stay until the fall but sometimes the water gets rough and there is no windshield, so it’s a choppy ride,” said Mr. Morris, of Dix Hills, N.Y. He is 92. He thinks it’s time to sell.

In Mr. Morris’s book, Islands of Content, he recounts how in 1879, Henry Livingston, who founded the South Side Signal, built the island’s first home, kicking off its iteration as a summer isle. Before it became a summer place, the only structures were oyster shacks. More than a century and a half later, many of Oak Island’s homeowners participate in the billion oyster project raising shellfish in the bay to help restore the oyster reef.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy washed down three houses on the east side and severely damaged many more. Fires are the island’s biggest threat. Two neighboring homes burned to the ground in a winter lightning storm in 2018, when no one was on the island. The island is serviced by the Babylon Fire Department and an operational pump truck is housed mid-island and can be pushed down the boardwalk or loaded onto a boat to reach a fire, but its “first responders” are those nearest the blaze. The island includes three automated external defibrillators. To reach the closest hospital takes between 20 and 40 minutes, including a boat and car ride. Each household has an air horn to signify a fire or medical emergency.

Leisure activities naturally revolve around the water: fishing, clamming, and sailing are favorite pastimes. Cocktail hour is cherished. Ms. Rexrode, the great-granddaughter of Pennsylvania farmers, is one of the few on the island who successfully maintains a garden, sharing her harvest with neighbors. Based on anecdotes from islanders, that kind of generosity is reflexive here.

“You see someone with a full boat, you go and help unload,” Ms. Liddle said. “If a boat is submerged, you pull it out, bail it out. You don’t say anything, you just do it.”

Technically Mid-Atlantic, there is a touch of New England reserve here, a kind of Yankee perseverance where descriptions of taking up the boardwalk each summer to prevent frost heave and carting over refrigerators in a skiff are relayed with quiet pride. Many of the homeowners, like Ms. Liddle, who lives in Albany, originally come from nearby Babylon. Others have winter homes in warmer climates.

The homeowners diverge when it comes to income, professions and politics. However, according to some residents who said controversy is sidestepped, the island leans conservative.

“We agree to disagree, then we talk about something else that will make us much happier,” Ms. Ellis said.

There is a shared distaste for showiness and pretense.

“It would be ludicrous to try to be pretentious on Oak Island because you can’t go anywhere once you are here,” said Alanna Heiss, the founder of MoMA PS1. She and her husband, Fred Sherman, a litigator, scanned the classifieds of newspapers for many years before finding their vintage cottage. “You can only socialize through friendship,” Ms. Heiss added.

Ms. Liddle, the island’s unofficial social director, plans covered dish suppers, where you bring enough to feed your own family and four other people. Games include potato spoon races. There is a sailing race and a book club.

“You’ll always be an outsider if you didn’t grow up coming here,” said Ms. Rexrode. Not so for their children, who began summering here as toddlers. When they’re on the island, they surf at nearby Gilgo Beach and sail, but they also put up solar panels and install decking. Their 17-year-old son, Philip, returns for autumn duck hunting with his father. And when their city friends visit?

“They are a little stunned but then they think it is cool,” said Philip Chirigos.

Houses here don’t often come up for sale because “people keep them in the family,” said Lisbeth English, an associate agent with Netter Real Estate in West Islip. She is the listing agent of 24 Oak Street, a two-bedroom built in 1914, on the market for $249,880.

A red shingled house is under contract for above its asking price of $399,000, said Matthew Arnold, an agent at Netter. And Listing Pro has a four-bedroom, two-bath house listed on the island for $485,999.

After 16 summers, Mr. Sherman and Ms. Heiss are ready to sell their house. They paid $220,000 for it and spent $100,000 on renovations, including the addition of a screened-in porch where the couple enjoys bird watching.

Both he and his wife speak of Oak Island with a wistfulness. Seeing the necklace of houses from Ocean Parkway “is like a glimpse of ‘Brigadoon,’” Ms. Heiss said. “Everybody can see it but they can’t get there.

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