We have been winter residents (snow birds) of Key West for years, staying at the Naval Air Station Sigsbee Island RV Park. One of the more popular nighttime spots is Mallory Square where you can watch street performers and listen to musicians while waiting for sunset. From Mallory Square you can see two islands, but these are only well known to a few. I consider these two island the islands of the “haves” and “have nots.”
Sunset Key is a 27-acre residential neighborhood and resort island in the city of Key West. It is only about 500 yards off the shore of Mallory Square. The island is privately held among its residents, one of which is OPAL Properties which operates a small number of guest cottages. The island is accessible only by a shuttle boat that runs from the Margaritaville Marina out to the island. The island consists of a total of 48 single-family homes and 21 vacant lots, each of which are valued at over $1.5 million. It is definitely the island of the “haves.”
Sunset Key’s official name is Tank Island. The United States Navy constructed Tank Island to serve as a fuel tank depot during the Cold War. Dredging began in 1965 to form the island as well as to build passageways for submarines and other large vessels. However, the Navy’s plans changed and the island saw little military action. Only two of the twelve planned fuel tanks were constructed, and although the fuel lines were run, the tanks were never filled.
In 1986, the government sold Tank Island and other anchorages in Key West in an auction to developer Pritam Singh. In 1988, the tanks were dismantled while the remaining fuel lines served as conduits for water, sewage, and utilities. Power cables were later laid alongside the existing fuel pipes.
In 1994, the island was sold and renamed Sunset Key. The island is now owned by Tom Walsh, who also owns the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina. For those of us who could never afford to buy or rent property on Sunset Key, we can get a small taste of its lifestyle by having lunch at the Latitudes Restaurant.
Wisteria Island has a much more interesting story. It is an uninhabited island located 280 yards north-northeast of Sunset Key. It is definitely the island of the “have nots.”
Wisteria Island, also known as Christmas Tree island, was created in the late 1890s and early 1900s as the result of U.S. Navy dredging of Key West harbor. The island acquired its name from the steamer Wisteria. The Wisteria sank where she was moored on the island and then burned to her waterline. The wreck was eventually salvaged, but the formerly unnamed spit of land kept the name of the ship as a reminder.
In the 1930s, the island was purchased from Monroe County by then-state representative Bernie Papy for $3,000. In 1956, Papy sold the island to Wisteria Corp., a group formed with the intent of developing the island into commercial space and real estate. Wisteria Corp. was renamed to Wisteria Island, Inc. when it sold the island in 1967 to F.E.B. Corporation of Key West. Benjamin Bernstein, a prominent local real estate developer, was the principal behind the project and intended to develop the island into residential space. It totaled 21.5 acres at the time of the sale. F.E.B. subsequently negotiated the purchase of 150 acres of bay bottom surrounding the island from Monroe County, a transaction that took place the same year.
In November 2011, the United States Department of the Interior (DOI) determined that the federal government actually owned the island, which it said had been under the stewardship of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for almost fifty years. The DOI had originally indicated that because the island was made from fill and was not naturally occurring, it did not belong to the federal government. However, subsequent research by the DOI revealed presidential executive orders from 1908 and 1924 directing that the island be reserved for Navy use, and a 1962 executive order transferring ownership from the Navy to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under Florida law, F.E.B. is entitled to seek a refund for having paid property taxes on Wisteria Island, but such a refund extends only to two years’ worth of paid taxes. Needless to say no one really knows who owns the island. It has evolved into a huge homeless camp. Vessels anchored off shore are not in an established mooring field and they can anchor there for free, under Florida law. Visitors to the island do so at their own risk as some of the “have not” inhabitants of the island have become very territorial.