History of Tahoe Keys | TahoeDailyTribune.com

History of Tahoe Keys

Rick Chandler

Gary Brand remembers the day he showed his first piece of property at the Tahoe Keys. The year was 1968.

“I was showing a lot to this woman, and a gust of wind kicked up and sandblasted us,” said Brand, a founding broker with Prudential California Realty in South Lake Tahoe. “I looked down and her legs were bleeding. The Keys were really in its early stages.”

Generally regarded as an environmental disaster even to this day, the Keys are at the same time an excellent model of design and community living.

There are 1,581 lots on approximately 500 acres there, with 12 miles of shoreline among its islands, bays and lagoons. There are also 26 parks, seven tennis courts, a water circulation plant, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a gymnasium and a full-time security patrol.

But in the beginning, there was mostly a heck of a lot of sand.

“I guess you could say that I have devoted most of my life to the Keys,” said Brand, who still sells homes there. “There aren’t many lots remaining, but if you were to ask me if it were possible to get in (a home at the Keys), I’d say ‘Let’s go take a look.’ “

Buildable lots are indeed nearing capacity in the Keys, but there are a few. Brand wasn’t exactly sure how many vacant lots are there, but about 41 of the number will never see construction because they are too small to comply with current building codes. A variety of other lots are off-limits for environmental reasons.

Most of the homes were built in the period between 1960 to 1975, during which the subdivisions, or units, were first established.

“The first was established in May of 1959,” Brand said. “Tahoe Keys Unit No. 1 was envisioned to be 296 lots with mostly vacation cabins. They started selling the lots in 1957.”

The Keys were first envisioned to be just that – key-shaped. The name comes from the old skeleton key, which features small protrusions extending from a straight base.

That’s not how the area turned out, however. The modern Keys are an amalgam of islands and peninsulas with no particular symmetry at all.

The Keys were dredged and molded from the middle of the Truckee Marsh, a vast wetlands area that was fed by the Upper Truckee River and Trout Creek. Contrary to popular belief, the Keys were not filled in, in the classic sense of the term. No foreign materials were brought in – the area was simply dredged, and the extra soil was used to form the different islands.

There were problems almost from the beginning. First, the developers found that the new houses had to be repainted every year, due to sand and rocks whipping into the homes in the wind. Developers had to figure out a way to keep the lagoons from becoming stagnant and polluted. Sales were slow.

Finally, the original developers gave up. Hawaiian Dredging was one of those original developers (Pomeroy Construction and Kermit Lincoln were two others), and stepped in to take over the project and protect their investment. Hawaiian Dredging’s parent company, Dillingham Properties, became the steward of Tahoe Keys.

“Dillingham’s concern was image,” Brand said. “They deepened the dredging in the lagoons, lowered the home prices, and planted ground cover to cut down on wind erosion.

“The original idea was to make summer cabins, but a survey found that people preferred model homes and condos.”

The changes made the Keys a success, and business soon took off. In 1967, the year before Brand began selling homes there, lots at the Keys were selling for an average of $9,000, or $11,500 for a cul-de-sac on the water.

A total of five subdivisions went in – the final one, Lighthouse Shores, completed in 1975.

Brand became the director of sales for Dillingham in 1973, and soon came to own Timberline Properties, which specialized in homes and property at the Keys. He no longer owns that company (stepping down in 1996), which is now called Prudential Real Estate Properties, but is still in the real estate game. And he still can be found showing homes at the Keys.

“People don’t realize that the Keys was originally going to be a much larger project that it is today,” Brand said. “The original development plan was for 750 acres and 2,500 units (it turned out to be 500 acres and 1,585 units).

“There are streets south of the Keys named Tahoe Island Park and Tahoe Island Boulevard, and the reason for that is that the entire area was going to be an actual island. They were going to dig a channel down there and make a waterway, from Fifteenth Street all the way to Sky Meadows.”

Those plans were abandoned by Dillingham, which wanted to streamline the project. Also, at just about the time Dillingham took over the development, the TRPA was born – and so was an increased sense of environmental awareness and stewardship in the South Shore area.

Today, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tahoe Conservancy own the land to the east and west of Tahoe Keys. The Conservancy is in the midst of an ambitious plan to return a 30-acre portion near the sailing lagoon, near Venice Drive, to a natural wetlands.

But even though it is hemmed in and blocked from expansion, the Keys are by no means a closed society. There are an average of 87 homes on the market at any one time, and a few vacant lots are even available.

Take it from Brand … you can get in there.

“Want to go look?” he asked. “Really, I’ve got some time.”

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