A $22 million hunk of rock

Red Rock Island, the only private island in the San Francisco Bay, is on the market. (Produced by Julia Chan. Video by Mark Oltmanns).

In a challenging real estate market, Steven Higbee has a unique property he’d like to sell you: The San Francisco Bay’s only private island with income potential and one-of-a-kind views.

Red Rock Island, located west of the Richmond shoreline and south of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, is for sale at a price of $22 million. The price includes the rights to surface rock and buried minerals.

“Most people don’t know it’s a privately held island,” says realtor Higbee, an agent with Creative Property Services of Santa Rosa. “They think it’s just a rock sitting out there that belongs to some piece of the government.”

Red Rock actually belongs to three private citizens: David Glickman, a former Bay Area attorney who now lives in Thailand; Mack Durning, Glickman’s close friend and former business associate; and Mona Durning, Mack Durning’s ex-wife.  E-mails to Glickman were not returned as of press time.

Glickman bought the island in the 1960s when development was booming across the Bay. But ideas to develop the property—including building a hotel or casino, or drilling for oil—went nowhere.  Instead, the island was mainly used as a unique private recreation spot.

“We used to go out to Red Rock to have picnics or just look at the Bay Area from a different point of view,” says Mona Durning.

After Glickman moved overseas to start a gem dealing business, he asked the Durnings to help handle the island’s business affairs stateside. He transferred the title to the couple, with Mack Durning’s name on the deed.  As partial owners, Mona Durning says she and her ex-husband will split the profits with Glickman whenever the island is sold.

The northeastern part of Red Rock Island offers views of the Richmond shoreline and Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

The rust-colored, 5.8 acre rock rising 170 feet above the bay isn’t on some official maps. Utility and transportation issues include a lack of water, power, sewer service, and established boat access.

“Most people would want to level a portion of the top of the island, and it’s been calculated that maybe if you took off the first third, and had no expense to get that rock, you could actually sell the rock for the cost of $22 million of the island,” Higbee says. “Rock is that valuable.”

Contrary to its name, it’s not the island’s red surface rock that makes it so valuable, nor its deposits of manganese ore. According to Higbee, the Franciscan schist inside Red Rock is solid enough to be used to build roads.

Whether the next owner could develop the property and access the pricey rock could be an issue. The borders of Contra Costa, San Francisco, and Marin counties converge on Red Rock, which means all three jurisdictions have a say in what can— and can’t—happen on the island. In addition, each county has its share of the island zoned differently. And, although the Contra Costa County portion of the island falls within the Richmond city limits, the island does not appear on city maps that the Planning Division has at the Richmond Civic Center.

Since most of the island—4.1 acres—falls under Contra Costa County territory, Higbee suggests that the next owner only develop that side of the island. He won’t comment on what specifically can be done with the island because, he says, that job is up to prospective buyers.

“Nobody’s saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that, but somebody needs to decide what they want to do,” Higbee says. “If you have very deep pockets and just want to have a house out there, there’s probably nothing against that. You’d just have to jump through the various hoops about how do you get your water, and how do you get rid of your water. You know, those kinds of things.”

Steep, rocky cliffs are everywhere on the island.

Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt knows those issues well. Three decades ago, he founded the nonprofit that restored the historic light station and hotel on nearby East Brother Island. As for Red Rock Island, Butt says it’s unlikely any development plans could be approved.

“I can’t imagine anybody ever getting anything done there. I think the impediments are just impossible,” Butt says.

“Try buying fire insurance where a fire truck can’t get to. Everything has to come and go by boat, and try maintaining a boat. It’s hugely expensive—the insurance, transportation, whether all the agencies that have jurisdiction over it. Red Rock is like East Brother without anything on it. And it’s like even more daunting,” Butt says.

In addition, Butt says the island is overpriced. Higbee says his client calculated Red Rock’s asking price based on the mineral rights, which he says tend to be twice the value of the property.

“Mr. Glickman basically came up with the price and I couldn’t run around and do a bunch of comps on the price and say, ‘Ah, you’re right,’ or, ‘You’re wrong,’” Higbee says.

Mona Durning says there have been several offers over the years, especially during the dot-com bubble, but the bidders’ prices were too low. According to Higbee, an unidentified potential buyer surfaced last year with a business plan that included a wind farm and small harbor. However, he says he hasn’t heard from the investor in several months.

Rocks of all sizes can be found on the eastern coast of Red Rock Island.

Many hope a public-spirited buyer will appear to purchase Red Rock, and donate it to the parks system. There had been rumors the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) was interested in acquiring the island, but Shelly Lewis, the agency’s public information supervisor, says that’s not true. She says the EBRPD is not pursuing Red Rock because of its jurisdictional issues and that “nothing’s really going on out there.”

Higbee says if a buyer were to donate the island for public use, he says he’d consider offering the island at a discount—without the mineral rights—but it’s not clear how much.

After all, Mona Durning says, “It’s hard to say how much the island is worth simply because it’s one of a kind.”

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