I discovered Bel Marin Keys on one of my regular drives up to Sonoma County, and instantly became entranced. This is one of the most extraordinary, offbeat places around, and I’d stop by whenever I had the opportunity. Despite being in Marin County, land of redwoods and hot tubs and mountain bikes, Bel Marin Keys has an altogether other-worldly presence. Approaching the community one passes through characteristic Marin woodsy scenery, but things soon change radically. The community was carved out of the wetlands starting in the early 1960s, with house styles evoking the latest design trends of the time. The community has a Florida-esque “keys” layout with houses lined along finger-like streets, interspersed with navigable waterways. Streets are lined with every kind of palm tree and have tropical names like “Bermuda Harbor” and “Montego Kay.”
Besides the striking aesthetics, two things really strike me about the place. First, the edges give way to vast expanses of flat marshland nothingness, creating an “edge of the earth” feeling, like you might just drop off by mistake. The second is the complete, utter silence… despite all the houses out there, there is no commercial activity and very little traffic, so it is quiet in a way I haven’t experienced in very many other neighborhoods.
Since I first published this page on my old website I have received some correspondence from Bel Marin Keys residents. They have been able to fill me in on some of the historical background. There are a total of 2200 acres of farmland that were converted in the development into a little over 700 homes, developed from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. The original developer, Jack West, dreamed of having a Caribbean like “feel” to the development, patterned on his extensive trips to that region (hence the Caribbean street names). He envisioned a larger community with a golf course and even a shopping center on an island in the middle of one of the lagoons, but this never came to be. The last phase of development was abandoned for environmental reasons, and is now owned by the California Conservation group. It is being converted back into wetlands for native birds.
There are five lagoons, all man-made, but the water in them comes from San Pablo Bay, and there is outlet to the larger San Francisco Bay and the ocean from all the homes in the area. Locks control access. The water is flushed regularly, to maintain its quality, and is also checked chemically. There are large fish in the lagoons, including bass. There are also lots of herons, owls, raptor birds, swans, pelicans and many other birds. There are even otters.
There also used to be horseback riding. A boating magazine article from the 1960s mentioned “miles of riding trails,” and that riding was one of the popular activities.
Many of the original residents purchasing in “The Keys” came from the military base across the wetland region called Hamilton Air Force Base. The base is no longer active, and has been developed for non-military use now, though some of the original hangers and an old airfield strip remain. Bel Marin Keys also attracted executives from San Francisco because of its vacation-like atmosphere. Today there is a mixture of well-established older residents (many of whom have children and grandchildren living in the area as well) combined with younger more affluent families whose children usually attend private schools out of the area.
Bel Marin Keys has its own Yacht Club, and it is a big part of the social life in the community. There are traditions such as “Santa on the Sea” where several volunteers dress up their boats with Christmas lights, deer, and other decorations and put on Santa costumes. About one week before Christmas they tour the lagoons on their boats and stop at docks handing out candy canes and such to the kids. There is also Icicle Day on January 1st on which day people can jump into the main lagoon (freezing cold!) and are rewarded with free chili and drinks. Finally, there is a 4th of July “Sailabration” involving a competition for the most well decorated and patriotic boat. They serve all kinds of good food and have all kinds of activities for both kids and adults, including a parade. Some of these traditions date back more than forty years.
I am particularly grateful for the historical information provided to me for this page, including images in the gallery below (click on the images for captions). As with the other pages on this website, if you have additional material to contribute, please send me an email!