Bel Marin Keys

With street names like Calypso Shores, Bahama Reef and Montego Key, this waterfront community borrows on the images of exotic locales, outdoor activities and a warm climate.
Photos by Tim Porter

Developed in stages between 1961 and 1985, Bel Marin Keys enjoys sunny weather, balmy breezes and abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation. With an entrance lined in palm trees and a fair share of banana plants, fragrant vines and colorful tropical plants in home gardens, this community of about 700 homes just east of Novato could serve as Marin’s poster child for paradise living.

Residents here love the broad streets and contemporary architecture, the active and family-oriented vibe, and the waterways that link and intersect their lives in this friendly neighborhood, as well as the grassy parks and playgrounds, tennis courts and community boat ramps that seemingly invite them to come out every day and play.

“People who visit say it’s like living year-round in a vacation home,” offers Ernie Ganas, who moved to Bel Marin Keys in 1974. “And I can’t tell you how many people come out here and say they didn’t know we are out here, even though it’s been here since 1961.”

As a result of Bel Marin Keys’ relative remoteness and a lack of through traffic, the flat-as-pancakes streets draw out pedestrians and bicyclists to explore their neighborhood right from their front doors.

And because every house is on the waterfront, residents with sailboats, powerboats, kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards can step out their back doors and ply the four lagoons or Novato River. Boats aren’t necessary to enjoy the on-the-water lifestyle, though. Swimmers, fishermen and old-fashioned inner tube floaters are just as likely to be seen as boaters.

The Bel Marin Keys Community Services District, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this September, governs this unincorporated area of Marin. District manager Madeline Thomas, who moved to Bel Marin Keys from San Francisco 47 years ago, was among the first 10 original residents and understands the area’s appeal.

“You get up in the morning and take a look outside, and it’s peaceful,” she says. “Someone’s out swimming or boating. But if anything goes wrong or anybody needs help, the community jumps up.”

Ganas, a Community Services District board member, agrees. “We’re very independent and take care of ourselves,” he says. “Because we’re small and self-contained, the district is very responsive to the community, and people here have a real desire to stay that way.”

The district’s building houses the community center and clubhouse for the Bel Marin Keys Yacht Club. Commodore Shirley Etemadfar oversees the yacht club’s activities, which include dinner parties, boat cruises and the Independence Day festivities. Initially, she was reluctant to leave her Corte Madera home 20 years ago but “fell in love with Bel Marin Keys” after attending a party there with her husband.

“We see so much wildlife on the water here,” she says. “There are tons of waterbirds and sometimes we’ve seen river otters and Canadian geese with their babies on the lagoon. And when my friends and I walk past Pacheco Pond (a nearby wildlife protection and observation area), we’ll see egrets, swans and pelicans.”

While there are no stores or businesses within the residential section of Bel Marin Keys (residents generally shop for groceries at Safeway in Hamilton Marketplace or Paradise Foods in Pacheco Plaza), there is an active business community tucked between the neighborhood and 101.
Here, larger concerns like BioMarin and the nonprofit Marin Humane Society operate alongside eateries, many with outdoor seating, and small firms such as John and Jill’s Cheesecake, Bella Notte Linens, EcoExpress and Reflective Images that sell their products across the country and, in some cases, the globe. A number of them participate in the semiannual Great Bel Marin Keys Holiday Warehouse & Studio Sale (belmarinkeysale.com) and offer deep discounts on their merchandise to local shoppers.

Right now, “Bel Marin Keys lagoon homes (other than distressed properties, and depending on the size, condition and views) are selling in the mid-$700s to the high $900s,” says Curt Proaps of Frank Howard Allen Realtors in Novato. “River homes are less desirable than lagoon homes and demand $70,000 to $90,000 less in price than a lagoon home directly across the street.”

Recently, Proaps says, “160 Caribe Isle, a spectacular home on the Bel Marin Keys Main Lagoon, completely rebuilt by the owner/builder, sold for $1,100,000, but there are no premium homes such as 160 Caribe Isle on the market at this time.” However, on the other end of the spectrum, 33 Montego Key, a riverfront home in original condition, is currently on the market for $425,000.

Categories: Environment, Neighborhoods