Stop signs, roadways, and water tanks signify the beginnings of a community, but the only thing visible for miles is Mojave desert landscape leading to nowhere.
Streets were named, lots were planned, yet dirt and brush fills the area.
This is part of California City, the state’s third largest city by land area. 203 square miles, to be exact.
Northeast of the city’s main road, police department, and newly built McDonalds lies a master plan community created by Nat Mendelsohn in the late 1950’s.
The real estate developer had the vision of creating the next Los Angeles with parks, schools, homes, and community centers.
The current city population of 14,000 shows that dream never came to fruition.
“California City is kind of unique because all of our infrastructure was laid in at once,” Cal City Manager Tom Weil said. “Nat Mendelsohn, his vision was to have another Palm Springs, another Los Angeles more or less.”
“It was fraught with problems,” Thomas M. Maney, president of the Silver Saddle Ranch and Club, said. “It was all done by Mendelsohn, he was accused of fraud. The way he sold, his sales tactics were more than questionable.” He failed to control the sales force.
They were free and easy with their promises, to the point they couldn’t back them up,” California City resident James Quiggle said. “You can’t let a sales force run a development operation.”
While Mendelsohn couldn’t fulfill his promises, Great Western Cities, his successor, put together a plan for the area. A plan that, again, failed.
At the time, an estimated 59,000 desert lots had been sold and resold within California City, a town that had 2,000 residents.
Martha C. Kamm and 14 other people sued Great Western Cities in 1975 for the company’s failure to fully describe the property and the risks of the investment plan.
The Hunt Brothers, based in Texas, bought the project and brought Maney in to clean up the problems left behind.
“Any problems that exist still to this day would go back to those companies,” Maney, said about Mendelsohn and Great Western Cities, which is now bankrupt. “I cleaned up everything.”
While the Hunt Brothers are no longer involved, Maney and his business partners have sorted everything out, something that took decades to do.
The area once with so much promise is now referred to as Second Community, to some local’s disdain.
A thriving business in the middle of the Mojave
In the middle of the desert community rests an oasis lined with green trees and artificial ponds – the Silver Saddle Ranch and Club.
The ranch – complete with hotel rooms and mini golf -- is a place for the landowners to engage with each other and participate in community events.
The president of the ranch, Thomas M. Maney, built the ranch in the early 1980’s, with some help.
“I was called out to finish Silver Saddle, which was partially built but was a tad over budget,” James Quiggle said. “I was brought in to finish it up, make it operational. That was a six month operation in 1981.”
Now on any given weekend, families can be found at Silver Saddle biking down the roads or participating in archery and other activities. The property is slower on weekdays, but people from the surrounding areas often come on weekends to visit.
Maria Rosales is among them.
“I remember coming up here as a child you know, playing in the lakes, catching tadpoles in paper cups, checking in, I remember all that,” Rosales said. Her family purchased some of the property in the 1980’s.
Rosales is now the executive vice president of the Silver Saddle Club.
Many of the ranch’s members come from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Northern California. Rosales and the rest of the sales staff continue to market in these areas to bring people in.
“I honestly feel that Tom and the previous owners started off something great and I’m gonna see that through,” she said.
Beyond the ranch lies a couple dozen homes built over the past few decades. Jim Quiggle once lived in one of the houses in the so-called Second Community.
“I miss it...this may not be the fanciest house I ever lived in but it’s certainly the most fun,” Quiggle said.
The impact of empty lots on the city itself
While the expanse of empty, controversial land may have put a negative light on the city’s name, the land does provide some benefits for the city.
Back in the 1980’s the city put a special parcel tax on all the owned lots.
The tax has grown from $50 to $150. The 14,000 people living in California City reap the benefits of the tax paid by the owners of the approximately 50,000 lots.
“We use that money right now to sustain our police and fire. It’s a public safety tax and it carries all my police, my code enforcement, my animal control, my dispatch, my records,” City Manager Tom Weil said. “The citizens that pay that tax can see very clearly what their money is going for.”
Without the revenue from the special tax, the government agencies would suffer.
One industry the city is currently looking at to increase their revenue is medical marijuana.
“If you asked me about a year ago if we’d be in this, I’d say we’re in Kern County and we’ll probably never do medical marijuana,” Weil said. By the end of 2017, a permit process and definitive tax base for the industry will be in place.
The industry could generate anywhere from $3 - $3.5 million a year for the city and, according to Weil, 70 percent of the community supported medical marijuana.
Weil’s hope is that the new marijuana tax will help replace the special parcel tax.
“Because it is taxable, it gives us a way to wean ourselves off the special tax,” Weil said.
California City also has money allocated for the Second Community area.
“The city has over a hundred million dollars in the bank and they can only use it out here, for roads and water. That’s what it’s for,” Maney said.
The future of the Second Community
Underneath the dirt and desert shrub, an entire water system has been built in the Second Community, making it the optimal location to start building.
“The waters there, it has pipes,” Quiggle said. “We have the water rights.”
The piping has existed under part of the Second Community for decades.
Utility boxes are also scattered across the area, providing the power necessary for a community.
“We have the room we have the water, we have the soil,” Quiggle said. “We have a lot going for us, but to just plunk a city down in this city, no. It’s going to be a slow growth.”
The biggest factor is getting people interested in building, Quiggle said.
As for the Silver Saddle Club, Maney is hoping that the property will be in the hands of the people by the end of the year so the investors can decide the future of the ranch and the surrounding areas.
I want to retire,” Maney said. “I thought, well all these people who are members, let’s give them the opportunity to actually own the ranch, because I want the ranch to go on without me, so that’s sort of the genesis of the project.”
Maney is working to have his land banking project complete by the end of 2017, by selling 4,000 shares of the project and giving investors the option to purchase the ranch in parts.
“It’s a long term real estate investment and they become actual entrepreneurs and developers,” Maney said.
It will be up to these investors on what to do with 1,000 acres that was kept for industrial and commercial development, as well as the future of the ranch and the rest of the area.
The project was half way sold out as of February 2017.
“With the land banking, people have the chance to own the ranch, not just be members.”
With the power in the hands of the people, Maney is hoping to sit back and watch what the owners do with the property.
Maney and Quiggle both agree someday, the developed community will happen.
“Someday...I mean we have the room. But what, 50 years, 100 years, 150 years, I don’t know. And obviously nobody else does too,” Quiggle said.
A failed community plan that continues to sit stagnant in time awaits an opportunity to fulfill the destiny many have had for it.