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Private island, yours for $75 million

Jun 06 2012
Can you imagine dining in this 5,000-square-foot main house on idyllic James Island? The view is nice, too. 

Can you imagine dining in this 5,000-square-foot main house on idyllic James Island? The view is nice, too.

Photograph by: Sotheby's International Realty Canada , timescolonist.com (June 2012)

Here's one you might have missed on the MLS: An idyllic private island, the fabled eco-retreat of a U.S. billionaire, yours for a mere $75 million.

James Island, just two kilometres east of Central Saanich, has been put on the market by its owners, telecommunications pioneer Craig McCaw and his wife, Susan Rasinski McCaw, the former U.S. ambassador to Austria.

Roughly the size of downtown Victoria, the island includes a 5,000-square-foot main house, a half-dozen cottages, a private air strip and a rarely used 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

The question now is whether the eventual buyer will share the McCaws' vision of the place as an - excuse the oxymoron - aggressively peaceful, private refuge for well-heeled, environmentally conscious families.

Once home to an explosives plant and a village, James Island was sold to developers in 1988. McCaw, now 62, bought it for $19 million US in 1994, the same year he and his brothers (including the one who was part owner of the Vancouver Canucks) sold McCaw Cellular Communications to AT&T for $11.5 billion US.

The previous owners had planned a relatively conventional development built around a marina and the golf course, but that wasn't what McCaw had in mind. He turned it into a bucolic family hideaway reflecting his own values. This was, after all, the man who donated $2 million to return the whale from the movie Free Willy to the wild.

Internal combustion vehicles were largely eschewed in favour of golf carts and electric cars that trundled down leafy, unpaved roads.

Power lines were buried underground. Yellow-jacket traps replaced insecticides, and birth-control shots were used instead of the fullmetal-jacket variety to thin the out-of-control deer population. A sign at the dock declared the island to be smoking-free.

A ramshackle warehouse on the powder-loading wharf was transformed into the world's most comfortable family summer camp, one wall riddled with shotgun pellets from the old days, the glassed-in front offering a stunning view across Sidney Channel to Sidney Island.

There's also a pool house, an all-season boat harbour and a western-themed cluster of buildings that house a library, a full gym, a general store (where the goods are all free), a library and kitchens.

The island is decidedly private, though charities are occasionally allowed to award rounds of golf on the course as prizes. The managers and caretakers are the only full-time residents.

A few years ago, the number of staff would reach 50 in the summer when the McCaws and their friends would visit - a food and beverage team, groundskeepers, security, guest services, even people to run children's programs.

Visitors' kids would help plant the organic garden, which sat behind an old barn reassembled board by board after being shipped from the Qualicum area. Children could play baseball on a field with a driftwood backstop.

Mark Lester, the Vancouver-based agent who has listed the property for Sotheby's International Realty Canada, says the number of staff probably peaks at closer to 20 now. The McCaws don't use the island as much as before. The McCaws don't use the island as much as before.

They're pulled in a lot of directions and their kids are growing. "They're not able to enjoy the island to the extent they would have liked."

This is not the first time McCaw has put the island up for sale. He listed it for $50 million US in 2001, but the only serious buyers wanted to exploit the high zoning.

McCaw then successfully applied to the Islands Trust to downzone the island, reducing the number of potential lots to 80 from 210. His vision was to share the property with likeminded landowners - no gas-powered cars, no more docks, no razing the forest. An agreement with the Nature Conservancy of Canada now permanently protects one-fifth of the island, largely the northern spit and the salt marshes by the powder wharf.

That last bit is not surprising, since McCaw - whose net worth was estimated at $1.6 billion by Forbes in March - sits on the boards of a variety of conservation groups and is president of the Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation, which funds environmental, educational and international development initiatives.

McCaw is also partowner with Grant Rogers in the Sidney Pier Hotel and Spa, and has partnered with Rogers in the Seaport West mixed-use project across the street from the hotel.

A company owned by the pair is also investing $9 million in upgrades of the Nanaimo Port Authority's marina, which it plans to manage.

As for James Island, whoever buys the 780-acre property will end up with the second-largest privately held Gulf Island. Only Moresby Island, off Saltspring, is bigger.

Lester says he has had several international inquiries since going public with the listing Friday. Don't bother trying to fake your way in as a lookie-loo, though.

Only prospective buyers with the demonstrated ability to pay will be allowed to kick the tires.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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