When Robert P. McCulloch was building Lake Havasu City in the late 1960s, he needed something to draw settlers to the sparsely populated lake on the western Arizona border.

So he purchased the London Bridge, dismantled it, and rebuilt it at his fledgling aquatic playground, hoping to lure buyers into the development.

A bridge needs something to cross, so McCulloch dredged a channel for his expensive ornament to span. In the process, he severed more than 1,000 acres known as Pittsburg Point from the mainland and created the state's only habitable island.

Since its curious birth, the island has sat largely unchanged, a vast, brushy, brown lump dotted by a few mobile homes, an abandoned airport and a cantankerous old sewage treatment plant.

It's referred to simply as "The Island" by locals who cross the bridge to walk around it or loll on its barren beaches.

Had McCulloch been a man of lesser ambition, he might have spared Lake Havasu City--and Arizona officials--one of the most protracted and vehement land fights in the history of a state that has seen many.

Since McCulloch's death, the island has become state property. Arizona acquired it from the federal government in a swap valued at $80 million, or more than $76,000 an acre. It is among the most expensive pieces of land the state has ever acquired--a price more suited to high-rise lots along Central Avenue in Phoenix than to lizard habitat. In fact, 80 million dollar bills would cover The Island, three inches deep.

Hoping to recoup some money from its investment, the state has spent ten years and more than a half-million dollars trying to develop The Island in some fashion, including building houses on it.

But those efforts have run head-on into fierce resistance from residents of Lake Havasu City, where political guerrilla warfare is something of a local sport.

City residents point out--correctly--that state officials (and the feds before them) promised them in writing when they took over The Island that no homes would ever be built there. The Arizona Land Department, they believe, is trying to welsh on that deal. So for years, local politicians and irate residents have locked horns with the government, blocking every effort to do something with The Island.

After years of contention and aborted negotiations, the fate of McCulloch's creation remains unfathomable.

The state is making next to nothing on its $80 million investment, and local residents are unwavering in their efforts to block unwanted development.

Now, in a bizarre development that makes sense only to locals, a shadowy group known as the "Stakeholder's Process" is negotiating the future of The Island. The group meets in secret and keeps no records of its discussions.

Secret negotiations by an ad hoc committee to decide the fate of an $80 million island that the state owns but cannot touch, an island that can only be reached by crossing London Bridge?

What hath Robert McCulloch wrought?
@body:Historians say that disputes among Native Americans who lived along the Colorado River were settled with long wands made by stripping branches from trees pulled from the ground. Perhaps the land that became The Island was a source of debate even then. That might explain why almost no trees grow there now.

As the white man marched west across the continent, the forbidding land that is now Lake Havasu City generated little interest. But there were a few hardy souls who found that sun-baked stretch of the Colorado River inviting. When they yearned to revisit civilization, they faced a two-day journey south to the Parker Strip, defined in one government document of the day as "a place for tribeless Indians and shiftless white men."

Nothing much changed until just before World War II, when Southern California began to notice its growing thirst. Los Angeles and the cities around it formed the Metropolitan Water District, which built the Colorado River Aqueduct and the Parker Dam. The dam created 45-mile-long Lake Havasu.

At about the same time, army engineers surveyed and plowed a series of emergency airstrips in the region. One of these was Site Six, on Pittsburg Point overlooking the new lake. During World War II, Site Six became a rest camp for battle-scarred air crews, complete with rough barracks and a mess hall. Adventurous visitors could try burro and rattlesnake meat as well as more standard fare.

In 1946, ownership of the camp at Site Six passed from federal hands. Vic and Corrine Spratt left the bustle of Needles, California, to operate the place as a hunting and fishing camp. Visitors who remember say the new owners left the original menu pretty much intact. But fishing was good and the Spratts made a modest income from the crude resort.

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Kip D. Cassino