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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.
Ralph Nader's 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."
Nine developments 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."
Publicly, Dennis 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.
One 56-room 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.
The Herculean 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 mind.