Is Fleming Island really an Island?

Cattails and docks line the shore of Doctors Lake in Fleming Island on August 2, 2013. (Christina Kelso/ The Florida Times-Union)

There is a Fleming Island High School, a Fleming Island Elementary School and a Fleming Island Plantation. But is there an actual Fleming Island?

That depends on whom you ask.

“It’s sort of an island but it sort of isn’t,” said Christopher Williams, geologist for the Department of Environmental Protection Florida Geological Survey.

Located in northeastern Clay County, the unincorporated community of Fleming Island is home to approximately 28,000 residents and string of “Island” businesses. From Lake Shore Drive to Black Creek Trail, tributes to the surrounding waterways can be seen on road signs, shopping centers and schools.

But when posed the question of whether they actually live on an island, many residents are more likely to respond with a raised eyebrow, a chuckle or a heartfelt guess than with any definite response.

Here are the facts: Fleming Island is completely isolated by water. To enter the community from any direction, travelers have to cross a bridge. It’s bordered by Doctors Lake to the north, the St. Johns River to the east, Black Creek to the south and Swimming Pen Creek to the west.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Black Creek and Swimming Pen Creek don’t quite touch. The two are connected by a shallow, permanently flooded wetland system that is not navigable by boat.

Because of this, an aerial view of the land formation looks less like the traditional idea of an island and more like a Fleming Peninsula (peninsula, by the way, comes from the Latin words “paene insula” meaning “almost island”.)

So, if the two waterways are connected by wetlands, does Fleming Island still live up to its name?

Well, maybe.

“This is going to sound really funny,” Williams said. “But it depends on what kind of a definition of an island you’re referring to.”

The American Geosciences Institute’s “Glossary of Geology” recognizes multiple definitions of an island. The first definition is a tract of land smaller than a continent, surrounded by the water of an ocean, sea, lake or stream. Because Fleming Island is partially bordered by a wetland system, it is not an island under this primary definition, Williams said.

But secondary definitions of “island” in the glossary include land-tied and submerged areas cut off on two or more sides by water; elevated land surrounded by a swamp, marsh or alluvial land, or isolated at high water or during floods; or any isolated and distinctive tract of land surrounded by terrain with other characteristics.

“It could be considered an island based on the secondary definition, even though it does not have an open waterway completely surrounding it,” Williams said.

It’s an easy question with a complicated answer, said Michael Binford, a professor at the University of Florida and chairman of the Department of Geography.

As long as the wetland retains standing water, it qualifies as an island, Binford said. Other examples of “islands” that fall under the secondary definition several land and mangrove formations in the Everglades wetlands as well as Mont Saint-Michael in France, which is connected to the mainland at high tide and isolated at low tide.

A rise in sea levels would change everything, Binford pointed out. If sea levels rose by about a foot, the St. Johns River would rise as well, bringing the levels of Doctors Lake, Black Creek and Swimming Pen Creek along with it, submerging the marsh and making Fleming Island, by all definitions, an unquestionable island, he said.

In the meantime, with water levels as they are, the question of whether residents of Fleming Island are living an island life is a matter of perspective.

“If they want to call it an island,” Binford said, “it’s an island.”