Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The words “private island” conjure up visions of mai tais, palm trees and solitary afternoons on a white sand beach. Red Rock Island is not that kind of island. It is a six-acre, dome-shaped outcropping that is tricky to reach and even trickier to explore. Its sparse plant life consists of scraggly shrubs and pines, along with thickets of poison oak. Its beaches are rocky, its cliffs steep.

Forget mai tais. This island doesn’t have a bar, let alone trails, potable water, electricity or structures of any sort. You can take a private boat there, but it has no dock. You can fly a helicopter there, but it has no landing pad.

And for $25 million, it can all be yours.

“We believe this is like owning a Leonardo da Vinci or a Rothko,” said Chris Lim, a San Francisco real estate broker who represents the seller. “This is something someone would want in their portfolio like art or a sculpture.”

Nearby islands have become famous — Alcatraz, the former federal penitentiary that housed hardened criminals, is known as “The Rock.” Others serve recreational purposes, like Angel Island, a former military outpost and immigration center that is now a state park.

But Red Rock Island, the only privately owned island in San Francisco Bay, is more of an idle curiosity to Northern Californians who wonder about the red speck and occasionally visit it via kayak or canoe. The dream of island ownership has long captured the imagination of the wealthy and famous; celebrity owners of private islands include Richard Branson, Johnny Depp and George Clooney. Private Islands Inc., a real estate website, lists 607 that are on the market or recently have sold, 116 of them in the United States.

Chris Krolow, the website’s C.E.O., said that most buyers are American business executives who already own numerous homes and want a new, enviable project.

“Americans like their ownership. They’re proud,” said Mr. Krolow, a Canadian who owns 13 islands himself in Canada, Belize and Fiji. “The idea of having your own island really fits into that American entrepreneurial spirit.”

Mr. Lim is hoping to find a billionaire who has run out of other distinctive items to purchase. And there is only one island for sale in San Francisco Bay, the centerpiece of one of the wealthiest regions of the world. (The Altrata Billionaire Census this year counted 84 billionaires living in San Francisco, behind just New York City and Hong Kong.)

Owning an island can come with its own frustrations, however. A New York pathologist, Albert Sutton, once bought two islands in Long Island Sound, less than an hour north of Manhattan. “I was cocky,” he told The Times in 2019, noting that the $8 million he had sunk on improvements, including solar panels and a desalination unit, dwarfed the cost of the islands themselves. Mr. Sutton has since died, and his family has been unable to sell the islands despite significantly lowering the asking price, according to Mr. Krolow, who said he has advised them.

Nonetheless, Red Rock has drawn some interest. Two real estate agents recently flew in from Miami to scout it out for a billionaire client, reaching the island by a private boat. “There’s nothing like it,” said Suzanne Santos, one of the Miami agents. “It’s close to everything, but separate and secluded. It’s rare.”

“This,” she explained, “is a reconnaissance mission.”

The visitors were advised to wear galoshes because the boat had nowhere to dock, and reaching the island can require wading or leaping to the beach an unpredictable distance that depends on the tide. Once they reached the shore, which was dotted with washed-up trash and an errant shoe, they had a view of a Chevron oil refinery to the right, San Quentin prison to the left and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge straight ahead.

Around the bend, after stumbling over logs and rocks, they could see the cranes at the Oakland port, the San Francisco skyline, the sun shimmering on the bay and sea gulls flying overhead. The top of the island is more of a mystery. There are no trails to get up the gravelly sides and no ropes to hold onto. So steep are the inclines that those who try to scramble up tend to slide right back down, with scraped-up hands covered in crimson dust as the only souvenir. Those who do reach the top, however, discover beautiful panoramic views of the bay, said James Martin, who took photographs for the 2006 coffee table book, “The Islands of San Francisco Bay,” and has successfully climbed to the top three times.

It is not difficult, he said, to imagine the peaceful seclusion of life up there — if only he had $25 million, plus additional riches to develop the island.

Decades before the gold rush drew fortune seekers out West, Red Rock was inhabited by Russian fur traders who plundered the sea otter population in the early 1800s. Selim Woodworth, a commander in the U.S. Navy and a state senator, later built a cabin there that no longer exists.

In the late 1800s, the island was used to mine manganese, the eponymous red rock, for paint pigment. Two mining tunnels can still be spotted on the island.

The chain of ownership is complicated and unclear, but a few facts are certain: David Glickman, an attorney, bought the island for $49,500 in 1964. After he moved to Thailand to work in the gem business, he granted ownership to his business partner, Mack Durning. When Mr. Durning died in 2012, his son, Brock Durning, who now lives in Alaska, inherited it.

The younger Mr. Durning spent time camping and hiking on the island as a child growing up in the East Bay, but he hasn’t set foot on his own private island in years. Now, he wants to sell it to pay for the care of his ailing mother, according to Mr. Lim.

He and previous owners have tried selling Red Rock before to no avail. The most famous prospective buyer was Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru whose followers at an Oregon commune deliberately contaminated salad bars with salmonella in hopes of influencing county elections there in the 1980s. Mr. Rajneesh left the U.S. in 1985 as part of a plea deal over immigration fraud charges, before the island purchase went through.

This time, Mr. Lim said, three potential buyers have inquired so far — the billionaire based in Miami and two local residents.

And what might the next owner do with Red Rock? Mr. Lim provided plans that Brock Durning has kept all of these years, showing a boat harbor and helipad, plus botanical gardens, a teahouse and a restaurant. At the very top? A wedding chapel. Other ideas have included a hotel, housing and even a Playboy club.

Mr. Krolow said that he has seen Red Rock Island go on and off the market for about 20 years, its price fluctuating between a low of $5 million and the current high of $25 million. He’s not optimistic. He doesn’t think development will be possible, considering the staunch opposition that Bay Area residents have to just about any development proposal. Red Rock has the added complication of being located in three different counties that intersect in the bay.

“We call them our decorative islands,” Mr. Krolow said. “They look really nice and they get a lot of attention, but they don’t sell.” Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of the environmental nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper, said she hopes none of the development ideas ever come to fruition. She believes the island should go to the birds — literally — and become a sanctuary for gulls, herons and cormorants.

“I’m opposed to some wealthy billionaire just purchasing it because they want bragging rights,” she said. “It seems like a pointless exercise.”

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