For the billionaire who has everything, consider an island in the San Francisco Bay


The words “private island” conjure up visions of mai tais, palm trees, and lonely afternoons on a white sand beach.

Red Rock Island is not that kind of island.

It's a six-acre dome-shaped outcrop that's difficult 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 does not have a bar, much less trails, drinking water, electricity or structures of any kind. You can take a private boat there, but it doesn't have a dock. You can fly a helicopter there, but it has no landing pad.

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

“We think this is like owning a Leonardo da Vinci or a Rothko,” said Chris Lim, a San Francisco real estate broker representing the seller. “This is something that someone would want to have in their wallet, 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 are for recreational purposes, such as Angel Island, a former military post 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 for Northern Californians who wonder about the red rock and occasionally visit it by kayak or canoe.

The dream of owning an island has long captured the imagination of the rich and famous; Famous private island owners include Richard Branson, Johnny Depp and George Clooney. Private Islands Inc., a real estate website, lists 607 that are on the market or have recently sold, 116 of them in the United States.

Chris Krolow, the website's chief executive, said most buyers are American business executives who already own numerous homes and want an enviable new project.

“Americans like their property. They are proud,” said Krolow, a Canadian who owns 13 islands in Canada, Belize and Fiji. “The idea of ​​having your own island really fits with the American entrepreneurial spirit.”

Lim hopes to find a billionaire who has run out of other distinctive items to buy. And there is only one island for sale in San Francisco Bay, the centerpiece of one of the richest regions in the world. (Altrata's billionaire census this year counted 84 billionaires living in San Francisco, behind only New York City and Hong Kong.)

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

However, Red Rock has sparked some interest. Two real estate agents recently flew from Miami to pursue a multimillion-dollar client and arrived on the island on a private boat.

“There's nothing like it,” said Suzanne Santos, one of the Miami agents. “It is close to everything, but separate and secluded. Is rare.”

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

Visitors were advised to wear galoshes because the ship had nowhere to dock, and reaching the island may require wading or hopping to the beach an unpredictable distance depending on the tide.

Once they reached the shore, which was littered 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 ahead. .

As they rounded the bend, after tripping over logs and rocks, they could see the cranes of the Port of Oakland, the San Francisco skyline, the sun shining on the bay, and seagulls flying overhead.

The top of the island is more of a mystery. There are no paths to climb up the gravel sides and no ropes to hold on to. The slopes are so steep that those who try to climb tend to slide down, their hands scraped and covered in crimson dust the only reminder.

However, those who reach the top discover beautiful panoramic views of the bay, said James Martin, who took photographs for the 2006 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 isolation of life up there, if only he had $25 million, plus additional wealth to develop the island.

Decades before the gold rush drew fortune seekers west, Red Rock was inhabited by Russian fur traders who plundered the sea otter population in the early 19th century. Selim Woodworth, a U.S. Navy commander and state senator, later built a cabin there that no longer exists.

At the end of the 19th century, the island was used to extract manganese, the red rock of the same name, to obtain pigments for paints. Two mining tunnels can still be seen on the island.

The chain of ownership is complicated and unclear, but some facts are certain: David Glickman, a lawyer, bought the island for $49,500 in 1964. After moving to Thailand to work in the gem business, he granted ownership to his business partner, Mack Durning. When 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. He now wants to sell it to pay for the care of his sick mother, according to Lim.

He and the previous owners have tried to sell Red Rock before without success. The most famous potential buyer was Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru whose followers in an Oregon commune deliberately contaminated salad bars with salmonella in hopes of influencing county elections in the 1980s. Rajneesh left the United States in 1985 as part of a plea agreement on charges of immigration fraud, before the purchase of the island was finalized.

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

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

Krolow said he has seen Red Rock Island come and go on the market for about 20 years, with its price fluctuating between a low of $5 million and the current high of $25 million.

He is not optimistic. He doesn't believe development is possible, considering the staunch opposition Bay Area residents have to almost any development proposal. Red Rock has the added complication of being located in three different counties that intersect at the bay.

“We call them our decorative islands,” Krolow said. “They look great and attract 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 come to fruition. She believes the island should be dedicated to birds, literally, and become a sanctuary for seagulls, herons and cormorants.

“I'm opposed to some rich billionaire just buying it because he wants to show off,” he said. “It seems like an exercise in futility.”

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