Monday, December 19, 2005

Lower Florida Keys


For the real estate buyer or investor, the Lower Keys start at Mile Marker 30 or Big Pine Key (home of the Key Deer, an endangered species, sort of a miniature Virginia White-Tail). Key deer?

You’ll immediately become aware of them because of the radically lowered speed limit the minute you cross from Bahia Honda and Spanish Harbor Keys onto Big Pine Key, imposed to make sure you don’t run one over.

Humor aside, you really have entered a different world once you cross over that huge seven mile gap of ocean from busy Marathon and the rest of the upper and middle Keys on the famous 7-Mile Bridge.

You have arrived in a world that is more laid back, slower-paced, more isolated in most ways, and geographically shaped differently.
• Until now you’ve been driving along the mostly northeast-to-southwest spine of each narrow Key, ocean to your left, Florida Bay or the Gulf of Mexico to your right, with neither body of water more than a few hundred feet away (or much less), for almost 100 miles
• Now, beginning at Spanish Harbor, you head north and then due west, before resuming (at Cudjoe Key) the trek towards the southwest (direction: Key West) that you’ve been traveling ever since you left Key Largo. (Ever wonder why it’s Key West and not Key South?)
• And something else is different! We are now crossing Keys that run more north-south than east-west. The actual ocean and gulf are now miles away, to our south or north, while we cross mangrove forests, wetlands, and pine barrens.
• Check out a map: the group of islands we call the Lower Keys are obviously different enough geographically from the Upper and Middle Keys (which run east-west, and end at Marathon) to have been considered by Colonial Spain as a different group of islands altogether. They were administered from Cuba, not from St. Augustine like the rest of Florida.
• When Spain sold Florida to the United States it did not intend to include Key West and the Lower Keys; the young (then Lt.) Admiral-to-be Perry was sent in the USS Shark (true story) to enforce the USA’s claim to the contrary. The rest is history.

This geography has implications today mainly in two ways:

First, the fabulous ecosystem of the Lower Keys backcountry provides – some claim, anyway – richer opportunities for boating and fishing, and certainly better kayaking and birding than any other portion of the Florida Keys from the Mainland to Key West. Almost the entire area north of the Overseas Highway (US#1) is protected wild environment as part of either the National Key Deer Refuge or Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. And that makes this part of the Keys very special, from a homeowner’s or visitor’s perspective.

Second, this north-south orientation of the islands provides dozens of flow-through channels in the event of hurricane storm surges, helping to reduce the extent of water pressure and flood damage. I’ve ridden out one category 3 hurricane in my friend’s house on Cudjoe Key, and while we had to deal with extensive flooding common to these great and rare storms, the damage was much less than it might have been if the storm surge water had been blocked and therefore tumbled whole houses in its path instead.

Big Pine “Metro”

The Lower Keys or what I’ll call “Big Pine metro”, includes the islands of Big Pine, Little Torch and Big Torch Key, Ramrod and Summerland, Cudjoe and Sugarloaf. Each Island is unique in its environment and boating access, which does translate down to home prices. More on that below.

When you enter the Lower Keys, you will see right away that it is much more laid back. Generally, the further you get away from Miami, the more the Bahamian feel. And to some extent, particularly on Big Pine and its attached No Name Key, and a couple of other spots in the Lower Keys, that sensibility is well-preserved despite the rapid development of the very limited remaining land available for new building. Parts of Sugarloaf preserve this same feel, and residents of the Torches and Ramrod would claim that too. It’s less true on Cudjoe and Summerland, but they have other advantages.

A few other general reflections about this area, why it’s different, will help bring it into focus.
• Teddy Roosevelt started the national wildlife refuges here about 100 years ago, to save the birds; and the bird life is definitely a terrific part of the Lower Keys special ambience
• Looe Key is one of the best places to snorkel and dive in the whole Keys chain. It wasn’t always so tranquil: it got its name when a British ship of that name went down centuries ago, and it was long a principal cause of shipwrecks in this part of the Keys. Today its main problem is the worldwide bleaching of coral reefs, happening here too (30% since the early 1990’s), but so far I don’t notice fish reduction. Come enjoy it while you can!
• Fishing is outrageously good: backcountry including flyfishing for tarpon, or offshore in the Gulfstream or along the reef line, near American Shoal lighthouse, or any drifting weed line; or try barracuda from a kaya
• Key West in general: you can go to Fantasy Fest, for example, and go home afterwards. Someday you’ll be able to go to Cuba with ease, since you’re only about 90 miles away!
• Biggest drawback, but hey, why did you come here in the first place? There’s only one lane each direction, and getting off the rock to Miami can seem like it takes forever. Fortunately the half hour to 45 minute drive to Key West traverses nice scenery, much of it slowly enough (45 mph) to enjoy it; but if you don’t slow down the police will ticket you.
• Boating is different here: water pretty shallow, big boats more rare than middle and upper keys, or Key West; forget sailboats in most areas. We’ve tried to differentiate that for you island by island, see below, but as a general rule of thumb, you have to look harder for deep water access here than, say, in Marathon, Key West, or Oceanside Key Largo.
• There are exceptions to that rule, and they tend to cost more: Cudjoe Gardens, Summerland Key, one section of Big Pine along Pine Channel. There are few deep natural channels between Gulf and Ocean near the more built-up areas which most bigger pleasure boats can use, but unlike most of Key Largo, at least they exist.

Big Pine Key

Big Pine in particular is one of the largest and most interesting Islands in the Keys. It has a population just over 5000 and as of Sept 2005-there were homes starting at $340,000. As you get closer to the water or buy a home on a canal, the prices rise accordingly. But there are quite a few different developments, mostly of single family houses, and some are pricier than others.

Water depth affects prices, and some areas have about 15 inches and some have 3-4 feet. Obviously this means you can have a certain kind of boat in some areas that won’t work in other areas. It depends what you’re looking for. The shallower areas have more direct and private access to a lot of the wilder and more pristine parts of the Island and adjacent backcountry. They may also (but not reliably) be less expensive.

Until now, on the drive down the Keys from Miami, the housing areas were arrayed on either side of the road, gulfside/bayside or oceanside. Here it’s different. The 2-lane, 45 mph Overseas Highway (what a misnomer!) runs across the southern edge of Big Pine, through the restaurant and business area; most of the residential areas are situated several minutes drive to the north. To some buyers that slow drive (30-35 mph speed limits, for the deer) is a price deterrent the farther north you go; to others the isolation means extra value.

Big Pine may be “remote,” caught as it is between the commercial centers of Marathon and Key West, but Big Pine does have it’s own major grocery store, post office and restaurants. It has some medical facilities, police and fire protection, and other basics of a “town It certainly has some interesting and unique retail shops, but in general it doesn’t have a lot of socalled unnecessary shopping. In fact the residents of the other Keys mentioned above generally will go to either Marathon or Key West for both basic needs and discretionary shopping. There is one big exception to that, on Saturday mornings, when it seems like everybody in the Lower Keys comes to the Big Pine Flea Market.

Nor does Big Pine have its own school system. Monroe County’s elementary and middle schools for the Lower Keys are on Sugarloaf; for high school kids are bused to Key West.

That’s this isolation feel like? Not bad, actually.
• Recreation: Boating, exploring, fishing. Whether you are interested in offshore or backcounty, Big Pine offers quick and easy access to both venues. Or walk along the nature trails that wind through Federal Refuge land of pine barrens and hardwood hammocks, and observe the miniature deer and bird life. Or kayak any of a number of “trails” in the shallow water backcountry. Or ride a bicycle along miles of safe roads and trails. Or snorkel or dive Looe Key, perhaps the best of the best when it comes to Florida’s coral reefs. It’s 3 miles or so offshore, straight out Newfound Harbor Channel.

The Lower Keys are definitely getting away from it all.
• Employment: If you live here, and are not retired, most likely you will work in either Key West or Marathon. Both of these towns are about a half hour to one hour drive at max from Big Pine, even at rush hour (an oxymoron for sure).
• Remember that “mile markers” in the Keys, which are the standard way of giving an address along the Overseas Highway, start at Key West and number 1. Big Pine is mile marker 30 or 30 miles away---Marathon is mile marker 48. Key Largo is 99.
• Local employment is fairly highly concentrated at this time, either tourist-related or construction. The rest of the services sector is still pretty small.

But in conclusion, if you want to be near world-famous Key West but yet have a quiet neighborhood and homes that are more affordable, the Lower Keys could be the answer. And if you really want to get away from even the sight of traffic on the Overseas Highway, Big Pine offers you that too.

To see more general information see the links under Florida Keys.

The Rest of the Lower Keys

There are five islands or sets of islands, proceeding from Big Pine towards Key West, that account for most of the available real estate in the Lower Keys. Some of these islands contemplated getting together as a new municipality called Village of the Islands a few years ago.

The referendum failed, partly because there was obviously insufficient commercial activity and commercially taxable property in the miniature downtowns of Summerland and Sugarloaf or anywhere else to support such a venture, and partly because most of the residents of these islands really do like their isolation and privacy, and didn’t like the idea of a another tier of municipal taxation.

So they voted against incorporation. Stay tuned; the issue is not dead, and eventual passage (which I consider unlikely) would definitely change what these islands are all about.

Here’s a brief thumbnail sketch of each of the islands that make up what I’m calling Big Pine metro. Each one is quite different from the others, so here goes.

The Torches

The Torch Keys are located just west of Big Pine Key and are comprised of three separate islands know as Big, Middle, and Little Torch Key. Little torch Key is the primary residential area with the majority of development nestled into the canal systems just south of the Overseas Highway on the ocean side. While there is some residential development on both Middle and Big torch Keys, these islands are largely protected by state and federal wetlands and hardwood hammocks.

Little Torch offers excelent boating access to both backcountry and offshore for both small and slightly larger boats. Some of the canals can be tricky to get out of, so it’s surprising to find that a number of residents here keep fairly large sailboats tucked behind their houses and in the wintertime the cool evening breezes and the sounds of the sailboat halyards lull nearby residents to sleep.

Despite its feel of an older neighborhood, with smaller canals, a little like some parts of Key Largo, Little Torch prices can be relatively higher, as they tend to reflect easy access to a deep water channel.

This is where you catch the 1920’s style deluxe motorboat to Little Palm Island to stay or for dinner. It’s also a good place to rent a boat for exploring on your own.

Ramrod Key

Continuing further south on the island chain you come to Ramrod Key. Ramrod is a very quiet and primarily residential island with pleasant neighborhood developments located both north and south of the highway. It is described by residents as being more "laid-back", more "keysey" than the islands found further down the chain. Ramrod is very familiar to the residents of the Lower Keys as it is home to the Cruz Animal clinic, an excelent veterinary hospital, and a popular local restaurant. There’s also a dive shop with accommodations and a restaurant.

Boating control depths are typically 2-2 1/2 feet with good access to both offshore and back country boating and fishing. Small boats are typical here.
Prices are a little lower here.

Summerland Key

Imagine flying your own plane to your island paradise home where you step onto your sports fisherman or cabin cruiser for a weekend of sun and fun. It's all possible here. Summerland is a mecca for large boat owners and private pilots. It’s one of the few places in the whole country where you can have it both ways.

The island boasts unusually wide flow-through canals and a private air strip for local residents making it a perfect spot to park a Beechcraft and a 50 foot + boat. The majority of homes on Summerland are located on the Atlantic side of the Overseas Highway.

Although there is some price variation, homes here are generally very expensive; those on what’s called “open water” or the airstrip moreso

Summerland has a small downtown along US#1, with a good boutique grocery store, a couple of restaurants, real estate offices, a bank, a wholesale fish shop, some healthcare offices, an office building, and some retail.

Cudjoe Key

There are a number of (perhaps apocryphal)stories of how Cudjoe got its unusual name. Many Cudjoe streets are named after either famous or amazingly obscure pirates, which might include a Mr. Cudjoe. Another story has the island described in 19th century Key West scuttlebutt as the location of ”Cousin Joe’s” woodcutting and charcoal-making place, of which there were quite a few in the Lower Keys.

Whatever its history Cudjoe is a quiet and peaceful residential island surrounding its own bay, probably the best bay in the area for water sports. The island’s fishhook appearance and bay are such distinctive features that they can be seen easily in satellite pictures.

Cudjoe Key provides a wide variety of housing ranging from ocean front executive homes to both Keys standard canal homes and some extraordinary ones, to the upscale gated mobile home park, Venture Out, on Cudjoe's eastern shore. All waterfront properties on the island, including Venture Out, have become expensive.

Nearly all the homes are on the Atlantic side of the Overseas Highway. Boating access on Cudjoe is excelent , almost no matter where you reside. Boating drafts generally range from 2-4 feet, but some canals on the fishhook are narrow and have shallow entrances to Cudjoe Bay. Eastside canals are also narrow and open onto shallow water. The more expensive Cudjoe Gardens housing area at the west end of the island has much bigger and deeper canals that will accommodate large boats.

Sugarloaf Key

Former home to the Sugarloaf Pineapple Plantation, Sugarloaf Key offers quite solitude to its residents. If you are looking for larger floorplans, more luxurious landscaping and privacy this is the Key for you. The majority of homes are located south of the Overseas Highway looking out onto the distinctive blue white waters of Upper and lower Sugarloaf Sounds. Large ocean front estates rim the outside of the island facing out to the Atlantic.

Boating is excelent for shallow draft boats with quick access to the backcountry, but there is no access for large boats or sailboats. The Sugarloaf backcountry is legendary for flats fishing.

If you are a pilot, Sugarloaf has a basic public airstrip you can fly into. There’s a popular sky diving operation, and you’ll definitely see folks falling from the sky. The houses along the airstrip get together at Christmas and the “Ho-Ho-Ho” and lights can be seen for miles.

Sugarloaf has a whimsical downtown, where you can also rent a kayak or a boat, buy essential supplies, and get a bite to eat.

Properties here tend to be expensive, partly because the average lot sizes are roomier than those found on the other Keys.

In Conclusion

This part of the Keys, like every other, is truly unique. We’ve tried to give you the flavor and an honest appraisal of what it’s like to live here.

Properties have become very expensive but they’re still a bargain if you look at comparable waterfront properties across the United States. This part of the Keys is certainly not for everybody, not anymore, but if you’re in that price range, you owe it to yourself to look at the Lower Keys seriously. They offer a different package from the Upper Keys or Middle Keys, and yet again from Key West, with whose prices they are often comparable.

A Keys homebuyer or investor needs to assess the whole package in each of the four main areas of the Keys.


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