The case of Mrs. Gomer Jones, widow of the Oklahoma athletic director and football coach, is simple and instructive for potential buyers of vacation homesites. When Mrs. Jones went to see the New Mexico lots that her husband had bought for retirement, she broke down and cried and subsequently gave her lots away.
There are an estimated 10,000 developers in the vacation home business in the U.S. Some have projects that are well conceived both financially and environmentally. But unfortunately, there are too many projects that are bad on either one count or the other or both. Indeed, the vacation home business, especially undeveloped lot sales, is rife with deceptive practices, and state and federal agencies have their hands full running down complaints from the victimized. There is so much fraud rampant that Vince Conboy, a real estate broker in Naples, Fla. and a crusader against the bunco artists roaming his state, says, "It's the single biggest swindle in the country."
George K. Bernstein, who recently took over and shook up the Office of Interstate Land Sales Registration in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, says of the industry, "Though there are many reputable developers who have every intention of performing their promises, there are those who are not reputable. We are dealing with salesmen—across the board, even among the reputable companies—who promise you the world and who are working on a commission, and thus have an incentive to sell and lie through their teeth."
For all the warnings by responsible public officials, it is almost impossible for any American with a postal address or a telephone to escape the hard-sell salesmen. Slick brochures bursting with color photographs of the great outdoors pour through the mail, and the phone rings with unsolicited calls about your chance for a second home in the wilderness—that retreat by the lake, your own beach on the sea. There are all sorts of come-ons, ranging from free plastic dishes to a free dinner at a local restaurant. The gullible who accept are met by an army of salesmen who wear bell-bottom trousers and have more teeth than Bert Parks. They pin a card on your lapel proclaiming you "Mr. V.I.P.," and within two minutes they are calling you by your first name. The pitch varies, but essentially it has the same opener. After dinner a movie is shown about the paradise you can buy. Both the film and the salesmen emphasize that Sleazy Acres is "totally planned," down to the new lake stuffed with bass built along the lines of Chicago aldermen. If the project is in Florida, anywhere in Florida, it is always "near Disney World." Wherever the locale, there almost always are swimming, water skiing (and maybe skiing, too), sauna baths, a yacht club, horseback riding, sailing, golf and, if you're lucky, a kiddie zoo! You can't miss. The salesmen have an assortment of lines. "Why I'm buying here myself just as an investment." "Sail into coves no one else knows about." "Go out in the early morning, breathe deeply and catch a whiff of the American dream." In too many cases the dream turns out to be a nightmare. That desert "ranchette" turns out to be a quarter-acre lot miles from nowhere, and the water only 800 feet away is just that, straight down. The southern hideaway is just that, too; many buyers can never find theirs behind the stands of swamp grass. Resale value is often nil. But then again, you have to have vision, as the salesman says.
Whenever a land-development scheme is announced, conservationists are usually the first to protest. Aside from any rip-off of the public—and there may be none at all involved—a development might not only put a stress on the environment but become a tax burden. Last year the Northern Environmental Council in Duluth, which takes in a host of organizations from Michigan to the Dakotas, issued a paper noting that "Local and county zoning regulations have, with very few exceptions, shown themselves to be almost useless when dealing with large-scale developments. These mass recreational promotions suddenly create vast new urban communities without adequate local government or public services." As the study points out, the promoter departs when the lots are sold, and "Left behind is usually a weak landowners association and the same rural township government to deal with mounting demands imposed by hundreds of new homeowners who expect road maintenance, sanitary-waste disposal, fire and police protection, lake and (often) dam management and miscellaneous public services including schools for those who become permanent residents. In fact, a whole new urban community arises overnight, too large and complex for the capabilities of local governments to deal with."
When the NOREC made a study of a shore development on Lake Superior in Minnesota it reported that 40% of the shore surveyed was "unsuitable for soil absorption sewage disposal systems because the soil is too heavy or underlain with rock to permit percolation. And an additional 27% of Minnesota shoreline...is so permeable that it permits too rapid a percolation rate for complete neutralization of sewage contaminants before reaching the lake water." In Wisconsin, Senator Gaylord Nelson warned, "With vast areas of the state still un-zoned, and weak controls on the massive new leisure living developments now being planned throughout the state, we are about as well equipped to deal with the recreation revolution as someone planning to shoot spitballs at a tornado. If we don't act decisively now, in a decade the once pristine environment of northern Wisconsin will be turned into a recreation slum...."
Senator Nelson is working on an amendment to Senator Henry Jackson's federal land use bill that would make developers prove that their projects are environmentally justified, but the fact is that even where there are laws some developers will do their best to bend them. In New York, for example, it is not just a matter of legislative statute but an actual state constitutional amendment that forest preserve lands in the Catskills and Adirondacks must remain "forever wild." This constitutional amendment, adopted in 1894 after destructive logging of lands owned by the state since colonial days, has been upheld time after time by the voters. Even so, battles crop up, and there are several fights going on now. In the Catskills, John H. Adams, a former assistant U. S. attorney who is now the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, has personally filed suit, along with Friends of the Earth, the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club and the Theodore Gordon Flyfishers, against Rockland Town authorities to prevent Mr. and Mrs. Fred Haas from developing Edgewood Lakes, Inc., a 400-acre property divided into half-acre vacation lots. Adams alleges that the town unlawfully amended zoning to allow the subdivision and, moreover, he charged that sewage from the development would pollute Waneta Lake and the Beaver Kill, which are designated as forever wild areas under the state constitution. The Haases filed a counterclaim against Adams alleging that he was indulging in malicious prosecution and had prompted newspaper articles to appear that caused them financial harm. Decisions in the case may be a year off, but the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has ruled, as the result of a hearing requested by petition, that although it is not opposed to the project, no sewage effluent could be placed either in Waneta Lake or the Beaver Kill.
In the Adirondacks, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi, conservationists have been contesting two proposed mammoth developments. The first of these, dubbed "Ton-Da-Lay" by promoter Louis Papparazzo, would house 20,000 people on 18,500 acres near Tupper Lake. The second, as yet unnamed by the Horizon Corporation, is supposed to be set on 24,000 acres in the northern section of the mountains. Now, however, both projects may come to naught, at least as envisioned in the eyes of the developers. Following the recommendations of the Adirondack Park Agency, the state legislature last May passed a bill imposing strict rules on development of privately owned land, so strict in fact that one conservationist says, "Massive second-home developments in the Adirondacks will be a thing of the past."
In part, the Horizon Corporation's announcement of its purchase of land in the Adirondacks prompted the legislative action. In an open letter to New York newspaper editors and state officials, Harvey Mudd II, director of the Central Clearing House, a conservation group in Santa Fe, N.Mex., wrote in June 1972, "The people of New York will get no 'bargain' if the Horizon Corporation is allowed to develop the 24 thousand acre property in the Adirondack State Park.... Horizon Corporation controls nearly a quarter of a million acres of land in New Mexico in or near two gigantic parcels known as Paradise Hills and the Rio Communities (Rio del Oro, Rio Grande Estates, Rancho Rio Grande). Their massive sales organization in New York State sells these 'sure fire investments' to thousands of New Yorkers every year who are led to believe that they are buying a lot on the edge of a verdant golf course, when in fact they are getting a piece of worthless desert half a dozen miles from the nearest utility tie-up or community services.
"Horizon Corporation sends many thousands of letters urging people to invest successfully in real estate. Horizon Corporation itself is the successful investor. They purchase large tracts of land in New Mexico, the price often under $200 an acre, cover the land with lot grids and sell it to the gullible in small size lots at prices that usually exceed $4,000 an acre.... The real estate section of the Albuquerque Journal is full of Horizon Corporation resales, which are well under the original price paid. The market is glutted with second-sale subdivision lots, and the company is certainly making no repurchases itself.