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THE PROMISED LAND

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCHETTE, TWO DEVELOPERS GET DOWN AND DIRTY.

The brochure showed a lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks, with horses gamboling about in the meadow. It looked like the place Elena and Larry Crossgrove dreamed of: a little ranch of their own. They were sold before they ever stepped foot on the land.

Four years later, the Crossgroves' bank account is as dry as the gray dust of the San Luis Valley. They've poured their life savings into a piece of property that's worth just a fraction of what they've spent. And there may be nothing they can do about it.

The developers who sold the Crossgroves the land recently lost a lawsuit charging them with deceptive sales practices at another project 200 miles away. Partners Larry Hall and Craig Hammond promptly filed for bankruptcy.

Since then, the Colorado Real Estate Commission has put the Wild Horse Ranch Association out of business for selling land without first registering it with the state. Under Colorado law, any such sale could constitute a felony.

Commission investigators have turned over their files on Hall, the lead partner, to the attorney general's office for possible disciplinary action. "We've done what we can do," says commission deputy director Harry Reagan.

Not so fast, responds Roberta Earley, the Crossgroves' Colorado Springs lawyer. If the commission had really done its job, she says, Hall and Hammond would have been caught sooner.

The developers may have run afoul of the state bureaucracy, but they have done nothing wrong, says their lawyer, Mark MacDonnell. Although there have been a few misunderstandings, MacDonnell adds, by and large buyers have been pleased with their property.

Not the Crossgroves.

"For only a few dollars a month, you can own part of the Colorado dream." For decades ads in newspapers, magazines and even the backs of comic books made that promise.

It sounded too good to be true, but suckers still mailed in their money--usually from out-of-state, and frequently without ever seeing the land they were buying. As often as not, they made payments for a few years and then gave up the property--especially after visiting the land and discovering that the lush green pastures and aspen-lined streams depicted in the ads were really windblown prairie. Or finding out there was no potable water or electricity--and no access road to the promised land.

The property would then revert back to the seller, who would peddle it to the next would-be rancher. Or sell it cheap to the next developer. Whole subdivisions were sometimes sold and resold that way.

There were other scams, such as the near-legendary land-contract sales. In those cases, the buyers received contracts but not the deeds to their land. If they got behind even a payment or two, the seller would take back the land. Since their contracts were rarely recorded, the buyers were at the mercy of unscrupulous developers.

Then there were the sellers who not only kept possession of the land titles but later mortgaged them. Buyers might make payments for ten or fifteen years, only to discover that rather than own the land, they had a whole new mortgage to pay off.

But there wasn't much they could do about it. Even if they found lawyers to take their cases, the attorneys wanted money. Often, disappointed buyers decided the fight wasn't worth it.

In 1972 the Colorado Legislature passed a bill determining that the sale of any piece of property less than 35 acres in size would be regulated by the county commissioners or municipal zoning agencies; anything above would be regulated by the Colorado Real Estate Commission. The 35-acre cutoff was an arbitrary figure, but it gave rise to a booming business in 35-acre (and up) ranchette subdivisions across the state. Developers who didn't want to deal with county commissions, which might require such novelties as land-use planning, simply made their lots larger.

A decade later, the legislature finally began taking steps to clean up the sale of raw land--property with no utilities in place. Most important was the requirement that ranchette subdivision developers register their projects with the Real Estate Commission and get its approval of their plans. As part of that registration process, the commission would check the title to the land and ask developers to make--in writing--certain disclosures regarding access to electricity and water, any taxes owed, the status of access roads and any encumbrances on the title.

The developer didn't necessarily have to provide water and electricity, but at least the buyers would know what they were getting. Selling unregistered land became a felony punishable by up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. And unless they were registered with the commission, land-sales contracts also were prohibited.

But the resource-limited Real Estate Commission still had to hear about unregistered land deals before it could do anything about them--and the very remoteness of places like the San Luis Valley insulated land scams from much scrutiny by the Denver-based agency.

In the spring of 1991 the Crossgroves were living in Hoehne, a small town near Trinidad, when Elena saw the advertisement in the Denver Post: "Wild horse ranch for sale. Cheap."

They had moved to Colorado a year before after selling their home in Utah. They had $64,000 in the bank and a dream of owning a small ranch. Elena called the number in the ad.

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