At the top of
California, where the Siskiyou Mountains meet the Cascades, America's most
successful recreational land developer has a new scheme for subdividing the
wilderness. That is how real-estate tycoons put it.
Jeff Dennis, 48,
has made a fortune providing rustic plots for claustrophobic Californians to
get away from it all. Throughout the 1960s he carved up farm and ranch land the
length and breadth of the Golden State and sold it off at city prices—$5,000,
$10,000, in some places $30,000 an acre, and more.
But the boom may
be over. Many of these developments have become rural ghost towns, magnificent
countryside slashed through by deserted roads. Buyers have not been able to
afford building their second homes. Many have failed to meet their payments,
resulting in numerous foreclosures. In some places lot values have failed to
appreciate and often owners cannot unload their land at any price. Consumer
complaints and charges of land rape have led to numerous bills being introduced
in the California legislature. The demand is for new ecological controls on the
projects of men like Jeff Dennis.
recent California report claimed that more than half a million rural acres in
the state had been bulldozed by "premature" wilderness subdivisions,
depriving the state of potential parkland. "Public access is lost to lakes
and streams by lots that are owned but not used," the report noted.
"The land is frequently badly scarred with roads and fill, and natural
ground cover is permanently devastated. The courses of streams are purposefully
altered. Wildlife habitat is bulldozed into extinction."
initiated or managed at one time by Jeff Dennis were singled out for criticism.
Among the 3,600 parcels sold in one development, foreclosures and defaults
outnumbered new houses by 380 to nine. Only one house was standing on the 230
parcels sold in another development. At Lake Arrowhead a real-estate broker
said she could get 1,000 listings from "buyers who wish to resell, but
there is no market."
brushed off the charges: "Who is to say what constitutes a premature
subdivision? This is still America. If a man wants to buy land and sit on it
for 10 years, that is his business." But privately, Dennis thought the
Nader report might benefit his latest wilderness project, the 5,119-acre
R-Ranch, located near Hornbrook, Calif. Instead of getting postage stamp lots,
2,500 R-Ranch families will hold an "undivided interest" in what is to
be, literally speaking, a country club. For $4,590 they will be entitled to
camp, hunt, fish, swim, ride or anything else on the ranch except own a plot of
land or build a house.
bunkhouse will provide minimal indoor accommodations for members, but most will
stay in their campers, trailers or tents at one of two ranch campgrounds. Each
R-Ranch "property owner" is entitled to invite 12 groups of friends per
year to spend a weekend at "our ranch."
Since the plan
calls for no individual lots necessitating improvements, Dennis has saved money
and kept much of the land in its natural state. But he is still unsure about
customer acceptance of this more ecologically acceptable approach. The San
Francisco Bay Area is six hours driving time away. Somehow, spending $4,590 to
commute that far every weekend seems less than Nirvana.
sales achievements of Jeff Dennis, however, are legendary. In 1966 he formed a
partnership known as Pacific Cascade Land Company with Boise Cascade. The next
year, with land sales topping $30 million, Dennis sold out to Boise. As part of
the deal the company insisted that Dennis retire from the rural land business
until 1971. So he retreated to his cowboy-modern Oakland headquarters, which he
turned into a personal shrine. Over the office toilet is the canceled
$1,167,000 check he paid the Internal Revenue Service one year. His desk is
inlaid with $20 gold pieces and one wall features a glittering gun collection.
Over by the window is a stuffed bobcat bagged by a salesman on the opening day
of one project; he ran over the animal with his Cadillac.
Dennis could have
accepted early retirement. Instead, he launched the R-Ranch development. Early
in September the selling of the subdivision was officially begun. A jet charter
brought 21 "buying units" (customers and their families) from San
Francisco. Dennis' finest salesmen were on hand, and before the prospective
clients arrived the men had polished their sales pitches. Some claims were
absolutely accurate. The Klamath River, which cuts through the ranch, does have
extraordinary fishing, mainly because the development is just two miles
downstream from a state hatchery. But when one salesman boasted that more deer
were bagged in Siskiyou County than in all the rest of California, he was well
off target, and when he stated that nearby Mount Ashland in Oregon had the only
powder skiing in America, the name of Alta, Utah must have slipped his