Chad Skelton, The Vancouver Sun, October 6, 2001
Growing up, Marian Churchill loved to listen to her parents tell her stories about "the family's islands." The idea that a poor family in Nanaimo owned its very own islands -- two, no less -- added a touch of magic to the life of a young girl in the 1950s. "I wondered why we weren't King and Queen, because we owned an island," Churchill remembers.
The Ballenas Islands, two isolated islands about 36 hectares (90 acres) each, lie just off the coast of Parksville. Churchill's father Melville Cook, a hard-working farmer, bought them from his brother Carl during the Depression for $40 after Carl could no longer afford the taxes on them.
It was an impractical purchase, even at that price -- and the taxes over the years were often nearly impossible to pay. The family couldn't afford to build a cabin or dock on the islands -- and the only structure on them to this day is an unmanned lighthouse on the north island.
Her family loved the islands, and avoided selling them, even when times were tough.
"It was something that we had," she says. "If we ever wanted to, we had a place to go where no one else could bother us. It's completely surrounded by water and no one can come on it without your okay."
But in the 1960s, Churchill's father, desperate for cash, sold the smaller, south island for $16,000 to help put his son Graym through chiropractic college. A few years later, he sold the other island for $50,000.
Today, North Ballenas Island is for sale for $1.5 million. And people like Marian Churchill and her family aren't likely to become the new owners. Private islands have become a hot commodity in B.C. Prices have skyrocketed as the super-rich -- dot-com millionaires and celebrities, mainly from the United States -- look to buy islands as investments, or secluded getaways.
With its many lakes and endless coastline, Canada has more islands than any country in the world. And southern B.C., with its temperate climate and proximity to the U.S., has more private islands for sale than any other province
Private Islands Online, an Internet site listing islands for sale around the world, has 24 listings for B.C. islands -- twice as many as second-place Ontario (with 12) and well ahead of third-place Nova Scotia, with 10.
One of the most famous private islands in the province -- James Island, owned by Seattle billionaire Craig McCaw -- went on sale last week. The asking price for the 325-hectare playground is $US 50 million ($Cdn 80 million) -- up from $US 19 million, his purchasing price seven years ago.
Neil Wark, a Vancouver real estate agent who specializes in private islands, estimates the price of most islands in the province has at least doubled in the past 10 years. "It's just supply and demand," he says. "There aren't that many on the market."
That's because most islands in the province are owned by the provincial government. And those that remain in private hands, especially in the Gulf Islands area, are being slowly bought up by the provincial and federal governments to convert into park land.
In southern B.C., there are probably only about 100 private islands., Wark estimates, and only a few of those are for sale at any one time.
Wark has been in real estate for 30 years, getting his start selling properties on the Gulf Islands. But after more and more people began asking him if they could buy their own island instead, he decided to specialize in private islands. That was 10 years ago, and he says the interest has increased ever since. "It seems to be getting busier all the time."
Campbell River-based agent Ed Handja says he's also noticed more demand for private islands. "There has been a 25 to 50 per cent increase in the past 15 years," he says. But because there are still so few private islands for sale -- and so few customers able to buy one -- the private islands business is still a niche market, with only a few sales each year.
With many of the potential buyers for private islands living outside the country, the Internet has become an important way to market B.C. islands to people around the world. Several Web sites -- with names like bcoceanfront.com and bcprivateislands.com -- feature islands for sale with detailed information and photographs
"It's the quickest way to exchange information," says Handja, who, like other agents, also advertises in dozens of yachting and high-end travel magazines around the world -- especially in Europe and the U.S.
Islands have always held a special place in the human imagination -- grist for everything from literature (Lord of the Flies) to slapstick comedy (Gilligan's Island). And the appeal of owning one is much the same as it was for Marian Churchill's father: to have a place where no one can bother you, where your property ends at the sea instead of your neighbour's fence.
"The idea of getting away is so important," says Wark. "It's much nicer than just going to your backyard. It's being able to get away completely -- away from everyone."
made of flour sacks, McCaw epitomizes the new generation of island dwellers -- he could cruise to his hideaway on his 92-metre yacht Tatoosh, which has room for two helicopters. Others get to their remote islands by float plane or helicopter. And instead of staying in cottages of tents, they build luxury lodges suitable for running a corporate retreat, and pay for expensive desalination plants to make ocean water drinkable and diesel generators to provide electricity.
Agents are reluctant to reveal the identities of deep-pocketed buyers, but they include Timothy Boyle -- president of the Columbia Sportswear empire in Portland, who recently bought two properties (Domville Island and Rubly Island near Sidney) for $3.9 million and $649,000 respectively -- and tirekickers like celebrity sax player Kenny G, who toured a local island, but didn't buy it, says Wark.
Comedian Robin Williams reportedly owns an island in Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast, but local residents say he's only visited it two or three times.
Indeed, agents say many private islands in the province have essentially become deserted over the past few years. That's because while the super-rich have the money to buy islands, most don't have much time to visit them. A spokesman for McCaw said the reason he was selling James Island was that he rarely visited it. "He's selling it because he hasn't been there in over a year and a half," said Bob Ratliffe, vice president of McCaw's Eagle Ridge Investments. "He wasn't using it."
Wark says most of his clients don't spend much time on their islands at all -- buying them primarily as investment properties.
One reason those that buy islands spend so little time on them, agents say, is that they don't realize how difficult island living can be. "You have to be completely self-sufficient," says Ed Handja.
And that's one of the reasons, too, that many islands remain priced well below the million mark. Unless you have a large island with its own fresh-water source, drinking water can be a problem -- forcing some to buy expensive desalination plants, which can run between $20,000 and $50,000. Electricity is also difficult -- requiring either an underwater cable to the mainland (which can snap in heavy storms) or a generator, which can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $60,000. And with no sewer system or garbage pick-up, island owners have to either cart out all their waste or use septic systems or composting toilets.
And those who buy islands can find that the isolation they so craved can end up being a hassle.
"It's tough to satisfy people's orders," Handja says. "They want an island that's totally private, where they won't see any civilization. But then they also want to be close to food, fuel, transportation and other services."
And while many islands already have cabins or lodges on them, many do not. Building on an isolated island can be a big headache. Whatever the price to build something, Handja says, "when you're doing it out on an island you can effectively double that.
"It's a working lifestyle. You're constantly working to maintain your surroundings. It's not for everybody."
Wolfgang Schwegler, a lawyer who has represented several Gulf Islands owners in their negotiations with the government, says he's heard many stories of rich people buying islands in B.C. and then selling them again a few years later.
"After a while they sell it, because it gets boring," he says.
Merry Island is one of those orphaned islands. A 17-hectare (43-acre) property just off the Sunshine Coast near Sechelt, the island is the privately owned site of one of the last few live-in lighthouses in the province. The brightly painted red and white lighthouse, which perches on a small rocky peninsula jutting off the island, has been there for close to 100 years, and is home to lightkeeper Don Richards and his assistant Rod Tainio.
The rest of the island is private -- owned by a couple of families from Vancouver. But they hardly ever visit, Tainio explains to a visiting reporter and photographer. Which is why, a few months ago, they put it up for sale -- asking price, $1.5 million.
Time seems to slow down as you set foot on Merry Island. The constant background noise of life -- cars passing, neighbours chattering -- disappears, replaced with nothing but the whistle of the wind and the waves lapping against the rocky shore.
There is a For Sale sign on the island giving a 1-800 number for Ed Handja. Handja says he's already received several calls of interest, but Tainio hopes it stays for sale for a while.
In the meantime, Tainio -- who has lived on the island for about five years -- has made it into his own little playground. Wearing flip-flops, track pants and a loose-fitting fleece jacket, he gets around the island on a beat-up orange mountain bike. With no one visiting the island, he has taken it upon himself to keep it well maintained, regularly clearing a trail that runs around the island.
Tainio says he bikes around the island at least every other day -- a challenging, and at times treacherous, course, given the island's rocky surface. And he enjoys walking up to the top of the island, which gives a beautiful lookout over the strait and nearby Thormanby Island.
It is a great life, he says. "It's hard to complain when you've got your own trail to ride on. There's no bears, no cougars. The odd otter comes on the island and deer swim out."
But Tainio's worried. He fears that the next owners may not like the idea of someone else using their private getaway. "I wouldn't like it if someone put up a 'No Trespassing' sign," he says. "But there's nothing I could do about it."
Times have changed since the original lightkeeper, Will Franklin, was assigned to the lighthouse in 1902. He planned to stay for the long haul, and with his wife Mary Ann took over the rest of the island under the Homestead Act, built a house on it and even did some modest farming, keeping sheep, ducks and chickens.
Franklin's two homes remain on the island today -- though they are in pretty rough shape. Even the real estate agent's Web page describing the island says "there is no question that these two character homes could use a little TLC."
Stepping into the larger of the two homes is like going back in time. The house has a musty smell. An old nautical map hangs on the wall of the living room, with Merry Island in the centre. The bookcases are filled with old hardcover books and magazines. And there is an old-style phone in the corner of the kitchen -- though it's unclear who the owners would call, since the island has no phone connection to the mainland.
Franklin lived on Merry Island for most of his life. But in 1954, after medical complications led to his hospitalization in Vancouver, the couple sold the island into private hands, according to Lights of the Inside Passage, a history of B.C. lightkeepers.
That left the lightkeepers who followed with nowhere to roam -- officially at least -- but the one hectare of rock on which the lighthouse and official lightkeepers' residence sit.
Tainio loves having free rein on the little island and wishes he could make it his own -- just like in Franklin's day.
"I'd like to buy the island myself," Tainio says. "But a million and a half is hard to come by."