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From cottages to castles

Once quiet and secluded, San Carlos Drive now in big-time transition

March 1, 2016
By John Morton ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The dream of a water view in Florida is rabid for many, and Katie Brady knows that. In fact, the Realtor with Royal Shell Realty even has a list of people who have patiently waited years for something to open up on the gulf or inter coastal waters.

"There's been an absence of waterfront property, except for maybe the rivers, but nothing even close to the gulf," she said. "It doesn't exist. But believe me, there's a demand. That's why you're seeing businesses being torn down for millions of dollars on places like Fort Myers Beach, just so someone can put up a house."

She figured people were out of luck. Until now.

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Now that some cottages and old houses have been torn dow, new builders along San Carlos Drive will have great views of the bay and Estero Island awaiting them.

And the answer has come along a sleepy road on sleepy San Carlos Island. Welcome to San Carlos Drive - a place tucked away under the shadow of the Sky Bridge that few knew about.

"More boats go by there than cars," said Keith Rigsby, the husband of Brady and owner of Florida Realty Group, in regard to the stretch of property that once housed a bunch of rustic cottages known as the Hidden Harbor Inn - one of which was home to a family of racoons.

Behind the cottages, however, are expansive million-dollar views of San Carlos Bay, complete with Estero Island's northern tip and the causeway leading to Sanibel.

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Better yet, Brady said, it's just minutes by boat into the Gulf of Mexico.

"Hey, no one on the gulf is going to be able to have a boat sitting in their back yard," Brady said. "That's what makes this so attractive. Talk about finding a sweet spot in the market and to think it came in a laid-back fishing community."

And today, Rigsby and Brady are representing the Hidden Harbor on the Bay, where in short order there will be 10 new million-dollar homes rising above an eclectic neighborhood that features an old-time RV park, a Coast Guard station and a giant four-story yacht-repair business.

"But that's San Carlos Island for you," said Brady. "Abnormal is the normal here."

Right place, right time

It all started when Jane Ross, the former owner of the cottages, lost them in 2007 during the economic downturn. They were razed, and the zoning switched to condominiums - but with a catch.

"They had to be Mediterranean-style," Rigsby said. "That was in the language."

It didn't take off, but another rezoning in 2013, this time to single family, changed everything.

Rigsby and Brady in 2007 bought a place down the street that they rent out, using it occasionally for their love of boating. When developers arrived, they got the call to list the project.

"It was just luck," Brady said. "Our intimate knowledge of the island is what stood out in their minds."

And the buyers who happened to stumble upon it wasted no time.

"They sold out fast," said Rigsby. "Seven lots on the water were gone in just a few months, with two spec homes going up right now, and two other houses were knocked down. One of them stood on two lots, and the owner is building a new house on one and selling the other.

"What we had here was a hidden gem that had been sitting there a long time."

Striking gold

Rodney Poole is an Illinois apartment-building developer who 10 years ago visited San Carlos Island for the first time.

"I was intrigued," Poole said. "I figured that neighborhood just had to turn over. But what I liked was that old-Florida style of things around there. It would look so good if they could keep it looking that way through new construction."

He pulled the trigger on a lot, but then when the word got out about the neighborhood's transition he discovered others wanted to sell.

"So I bought a place just up the drive a bit that I'm going to remodel," Poole said. "As for my lot, I'll sell it."

Many of the earlier lot sales went in the high $500,000s to low $600,000s a couple of years ago, Brady said.

What does Poole think he can get for his lot now?

"Well, all I know is the guy who split his lot into two is listing the one half of it for $795,000," Poole said. "So what does that tell you?"

He knows the demand will be there, and he says the views are what pack the biggest punch.

"It's better than being on the gulf, where at night you get nothing but darkness," Poole said. "Here, you have the beautiful lights of the Pink Shell and other nice resorts. They light up the whole bay. It's a vantage point that's hard to come by."

Progress on the move

As for Ross, who lived on Fort Myers Beach for years and now lives on Sanibel Island, she said the transformation of her quaint little stretch of property makes her sad.

"The island is changing so drastically. I'd hate to see it become a cement city," Ross said. "And I hate to see the views belong to just a few who can afford it.

Thirty years ago, this was just a fishing village. I wish it could stay that way - quiet, laid back, casual. Once upon a time, there wasn't a single billboard on San Carlos Island."

Both across the street and next door to the new homes sits the modest Bon Air Mobile Home Park. Part-time resident Randy Rodgerson relaxes on his front porch, not overly concerned about the construction commotion or the large homes that on the way that will tower over him.

"Well, I liked having the view but at the same time there's nothing pretty about an empty lot," he said. "I guess it's just progress. But I wonder what this will mean for us? Somewhere down the road, whether it's more taxes or what, this will no doubt affect us."



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