Where Little Grows, Capitalism Takes Root

May 13, 2007
This Land
By DAN BARRY

LUCIN, Utah

Great Location! Rare Parcel! Premium Lot!

Somehow these hoary come-ons still cast their spell, drawing us in, relieving us of that obstacle to suspect acquisition, our disbelief. With words that all but wink in confidence, they slyly suggest that our mothers raised no fools, that we should get while the getting’s good — and that desert land in Utah is the next big thing.

“Excellent investment property in high-growth area,” reads an eBay advertisement for the sale of 40 acres in a remote part of rural Box Elder County. Good roads (unencumbered by pavement), close to casinos (if 80 miles is close), and, the ad says, “Only one mile away from Lucin Town.”

Ah, the lure of Lucin Town.

To reach Lucin from the pleasant county seat, Brigham City, you must drive nearly 150 miles, around the top of the Great Salt Lake and then southwest, along a two-lane road curling past tumbleweeds and the very occasional ranch. After a long while you turn left onto a dirt road, travel six bumpy miles — and there you are, smack in the middle of spectacular nothingness: Lucin.

Lucin is not even a ghost town; it is a ghost junction, where lonely dirt road crosses lonely railroad track, and the most prominent inhabitants are a snake, a beetle and some large ants. Step on the parched earth to examine that toppled Lucin sign, and dust kicks up.

Nearly 1,800 miles away, in Houston, one of the partners in the company selling the land answers his telephone. His name is Sanjit Tayi, and he says he has never set foot on these desolate 40 acres that his company describes as “high growth.”

“What’s there?” he asks. “Is there a gas station or something there?”

Uh, no.

If you’ve always dreamed of owning parched, inaccessible property in Utah, you may have missed your chance. Essentially to protect people from themselves, Box Elder County officials are cracking down on how remote lands within its sprawling boundaries are misleadingly advertised and illegally subdivided.

The county has notified more than 3,000 people that the property they bought for hundreds or thousands of dollars, often sight unseen, appears to have been carved from much larger parcels in violation of county and state zoning laws. The owners of these illegally subdivided properties were informed that they cannot sell their land, cannot develop their land — and, in many cases, cannot even visit their land, because there is no access.

Other than that, welcome to Box Elder County!

The county plans to file criminal charges against the offending developers. In the meantime, it has hired several temporary workers to handle the flood of calls from landowners who received notices of noncompliance. Some callers say they bought a cheap quarter-acre just for the kick of owning land in Utah; others say that suburban sprawl will reach the desert someday, and when that day comes, oh boy.

“They’re calling from all over the world, basically,” says LuAnn Adams, the county recorder and clerk. “I know I’ve had Germany, Australia.”

Ms. Adams says she has seen advertisements for desert land that include photographs of the glittery waters of Willard Bay, a mere three hours’ drive from the property for sale. She has also fielded calls from people who say they own a lot on Sunset Drive.

Although Sunset Drive does not exist, she readily assures them that “there are beautiful sunsets out there.”

Land speculation, of course, is nothing new. What is new is how the Internet has quickened the timing referred to in a familiar saying. Now, it seems, there’s a sucker born every second.

Officials say that another run on desert land years ago prompted them to create zoning laws requiring that most lots for sale in the county’s western desert be a minimum of 160 acres. Nevertheless, in recent years entrepreneurs have bought, subdivided and sold the parcels, and then have filed deeds with the recorder’s office — though, alas, without securing the required approval of zoning officials.

Take, for example, the 160-acre parcel that one of the more active entrepreneurs, Larry Madsen, of Bluffdale, Utah, subdivided in the middle of nowhere, well more than a mile from where unpaved Little Pigeon Road ends. The map of that parcel is now a crazed checkerboard of small boxes, each one bearing the name of a proud owner.

Mr. Madsen declined this week to discuss his real estate business. He wrote in an e-mail message that “I am simply a retired person who purchased some investment land and sold part of it when I retired to help cover living expenses.”

One of his customers is Reza Stegamat, a business manager who lives near Pittsburgh. Two years ago Mr. Stegamat saw one of Mr. Madsen’s advertisements on eBay, became convinced that Utah land would be a good investment and bought five acres for about $1,500. A year later he made his way to Box Elder County and tried to find his property, somewhere in the vicinity of Little Pigeon Road.

“I kept going back and forth,” he recalls. “But there was nothing, really.”

Out where Mr. Stegamat once searched in vain, the desert stretches like a dream-swallowing ocean. For all the petty deceit and human folly, it remains the same, hostile and beautiful, daunting and serene.

On this spring evening, a snake slithers, the warm breeze offers a phantom kiss, and unseen birds sing the chuckling, rarely heard song of Lucin Town.

Online: Additional photographs and an audio report by Dan Barry on desert land for sale in Utah. nytimes.com/danbarry

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Published in: on May 13, 2007 at 12:32 am  Leave a Comment  

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