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Fool’s gold at Bonanza Ranch

Once-promising development circles the drain when owners learn they can’t flush the toilets

Four decades ago, gold flowed from Bonanza Ranch. Folks from most states and several foreign countries raced to buy their little piece of Idaho from ads they read in Outdoor Life and the Wall Street Journal. Pictures of Western stars on horses overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene provided the bait. And the $10 down, and $10 per month at 6 percent interest furnished the hook. “We sold them all,” said Bob Templin, who founded the subdivision with his partners in the late 1950s. “It was very, very successful.” With streets such as Little Joe and Cartwright, named after “Bonanza” TV show characters, everybody wanted one of the quarter-acre lots, he said. “If you read an ad in the New York Times about Bonanza Ranch and then you watched the show on Sunday, it made a lot of sense,” he said. “That’s why we came up with those names.” Templin used the cash he made from Bonanza Ranch sales to purchase some railroad property in downtown Coeur d’Alene. There he built the North Shore Resort, which was later rebuilt and converted into the Coeur d’Alene Resort. As Bonanza Ranch money bought Coeur d’Alene’s future economy and identity, its own success disappeared with the flush of a toilet. Or, more to the point, what happened after Bonanza Ranch homeowners tried flushing their toilets. The underlying soils of Bonanza Ranch are mostly clay over hard basalt rock. That doesn’t allow water to percolate, thus septic systems don’t work well. As a result, public agencies now use Bonanza Ranch as the epitome of what developers should avoid. The 721 lots on 200 acres, located near the intersection of Mullan Trail and Sunnyside Trail roads, still have views, meadows and mountain ridges. Some very nice homes remain. But most lots are home to rundown mobile homes, collections of junker cars and the occasional goat. “It’s a perfect example of the nightmare you can end up with and the number of people who can get hurt on a deal without some kind of controls,” said Ken Babin, an environmental health specialist for the Panhandle Health District. The small, quarter-acre lots compounded the problem, he said. Even those lots with soils that drain well are, in many cases, too small to allow septic systems to work properly. The only way to solve the problem is to build a sewer system, but landowners haven’t been willing to pay for it, Babin said. Babin tried to persuade the homeowners in the mid-1980s to pay for a sewer system. “Most of them are out-of-state landowners,” he said. “It didn’t get very far.” Longtime residents Randy and Julie Latuseck question why they would want to pay to build a sewer system that would allow more homes. “We have privacy. That’s why we moved out here and why we like it here,” Randy Latuseck said. Each year, several lots are bought and sold. New landowners quickly discover - sometimes in tears - that the county won’t give them building permits on most of the lots. “We get inquiries on (Bonanza lots) every year. Somebody will pick them up at bargain prices,” Babin said. “Yeah, there’s a reason it’s cheap.” Most landowners give up and stop paying property taxes. Eventually Kootenai County takes ownership through tax deeds. “If I had to list a couple areas that are constantly at the top of the tax deeds, Bonanza Ranch would be one or two,” said Mike McDowell, chief deputy county assessor. The county has been getting lots from Bonanza Ranch - because of delinquent owners - since McDowell started working for the county in 1977. “I think they were originally developed in good faith,” McDowell said. “I don’t think the developer knew the problems with the soils. “On the surface, it looks like a great area.” Templin and partners Bill Reagan, Jim Brastrup and others formed Western Frontiers Inc. In 1958, they platted the subdivision into a series of equal-sized boxes with no regard to the varied terrain. That resulted in some roads that go straight up a mountain ridge and are unusable. Some are little more than trails for adventurous ATV riders. That platting was done before the county had planning or building departments. Templin said he hasn’t been to the subdivision in about 19 years - since he lost control of Western Frontiers from what he called the 1983 “takeover” by Duane Hagadone. The takeover followed a bitter battle between Templin and Hagadone for control of Western Frontiers. Partner Jerry Jaeger, whose father ran the North Shore before he was killed in a plane crash, sided with Hagadone, as did partner Bill Reagan. Their defections, and the purchase of stock from a former Templin acquaintance, allowed Hagadone to get the 51 percent of the company that he needed to take control on June 5, 1983. Jaeger, president of Hagadone Hospitality, could not be reached Friday. That company took over ownership of any unsold lots at Bonanza Ranch. Templin said he didn’t know that most Bonanza Ranch lots are now vacant or have rundown dwellings. “It wasn’t intended to be that,” he said. “I don’t know really what has happened up there.” Templin and his partners formed a water district and had plans to expand that system to include sewer. But the sewer never got built. Bonanza Ranch also has been mentioned in recent discussions between developers and government officials about the county possibly getting into the utility business. “One of the things that could be done, if the county did get involved, is to form a local improvement district,” Babin said. “There are still nice parcels. It’s a beautiful view. And it sits in a bowl so, physically, you could put a sewer system up there,” he said. McDowell said he wouldn’t mind having a home in Bonanza Ranch - if it had a sewer system. “I don’t know how far down the road, but it may become economically feasible to develop” a sewer system, he said. “But in my personal opinion, I don’t think government has a role in that. I think that’s up to the property owners,” he said. “I don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for that. They are not the ones who are going to gain from it.” The sewer problem has crippled the image of Bonanza Ranch’s past glory. “It was one of the largest real estate sales of its kind,” Templin said. Every convention at the former North Shore Resort included a barbecue up at Bonanza Ranch. A U.S. attorney general, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the Washington State Cougars football team, boosters and car dealers feasted on steak, Idaho potatoes and corn on the cob. “There weren’t many industries coming in those days,” Templin said. “It was a way to bring more people to Idaho and to advertise the great lifestyle that we have.” Babin remembers as a child seeing the billboard: “Your future home site, Bonanza Ranch.” “It was right on the hill above Tony’s Supper Club,” he said. “It was kind of a landmark.” But Babin has spent a career helping homeowners in the Panhandle avoid the same problems Bonanza Ranch created. “I could write a book filled with stories like that,” he said. Templin, too, hopes for the best for his old project. “I’m disappointed to have any property deteriorated like that,” he said. “But particularly that.”
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