Fisher Island: Back on top as home to the ultra-rich

TRD South Florida

by Emily Schmall

Better times, though, still marred by tug-of-war over vacant lots


Fisher Island

Fisher Island

If there’s a real estate comeback kid, Fisher Island is a definite contender.

When the housing market imploded six years ago, the exclusive enclave had a longer fall than nearly all of Miami’s other neighborhoods. It lost its position as America’s most expensive zip code, an honor awarded by Forbes. The median sales price of its palatial homes plummeted, from $2.6 million in March 2007 to $1.88 million in August 2009. Dozens of homeowners found themselves facing foreclosures. As if that weren’t enough, a nasty fight for its undeveloped land broke out.

But the man-made barrier island, reachable only by boat, toughed it out, and it is clearly climbing out of its deep hole.

The 216-acre haven — named for Carl G. Fisher, the wealthy auto-parts manufacturer who was the first to develop it — hasn’t reclaimed the zip-code title, but Forbes has deemed it the wealthiest place to live in America, putting the average net worth of taxpayers at an eye-popping $57.2 million. The median sales price now stands at nearly $3 million, and homes seized by lenders are finding buyers, 80 percent from overseas.

And a handful of longtime residents are deciding the market is just too good not to take advantage of it.

Hedge-funder Jeffrey Camp, 44, has listed his five-bedroom condo, with maids’ quarters, for $6.2 million — nearly $4 million more than he paid for it a decade ago. The price factors in the property’s ocean views and simply the aura of the island, explained Elena Bluntzer, Camp’s broker and a longtime resident herself.

“Everyone’s so civilized [here],” said Bluntzer from the driver’s seat of a golf cart, the preferred way to get around the immaculately landscaped island.

About 80 percent of Fisher Island’s 150 permanent residents — the population jumps to 600 in the winter months — own another home or two or even three.

“When people come here, they don’t want to be among every demographic of society,” Bluntzer went on. “They want security and they want the resort feel.”

Of the 20 percent who have their primary residence on Fisher Island, many come from other countries. At the elementary school, for example, classes are taught in three languages — English, Spanish and Mandarin.

Besides breathtaking views and a sense of calm, the island has an ultra-private club and resort. The heart of the club — a hotel, a spa, restaurants, a marina, beaches, a golf course and tennis courts — was once the home of William Kissam Vanderbilt, of the railroad barons, who traded Fisher a luxury yacht for the island in the mid-1920s. Over the last couple of years, the club spent $60 million on restoring the Mediterranean-style mansion and improving its grounds.

Much interest from abroad in the last five years has come from Russians and citizens of the former Soviet states. And a Russian and natives of Georgia, a former Soviet state, are the ones in that ugly feud over vacant lots.

The undeveloped space belongs to Fisher Island Holdings. What’s in dispute is who owns the company: the estate of a late Georgian billionaire named Arkadi Patarkasishvili, or Joseph Kay, Patarkasishvili’s half-cousin and business advisor.

In 2008, shortly after losing his bid to be Georgia’s president, Patarkasishvili died unexpectedly. Kay took over Fisher Island Holdings and filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in New York against Patarkasishvili’s widow and a former business partner, Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, accusing them of poisoning Patarkasishvili.

The Russian buyers have helped shrink the island’s supply of homes from 170 at the peak of the downturn to fewer than 60 now. And developers are taking notice of both the foreign demand and the dwindling inventory: Fisher Island Holdings, for example, wants to build twin 10-story towers along Government Cut, the shipping channel between the island and the Port of Miami; the 180 units — 90 in each building — are expected to bring an average of $20 million each.

Camp is confident that most buyers interested in Fisher Island are truly looking for a wonderful place to live, not a fast way to make a buck. “Going into the recession, a lot were speculators,” he said. “The recession cleared them out.”

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