Ghost Lots: How real estate development gone wrong could affect El Paso county growth

More than 50,000 acres of land in east El Paso County are undevelopable.jpg

It’s no secret that the east side of El Paso county is expanding at a rapid rate.

But it may soon hit a roadblock--all because of something that happened five decades ago.

In a special assignment, KFOX14 reporter Adria Iraheta explains how the ghost lots of El Paso County are posing a risk to further growth.

Look at any map and at first glance, the eastern part of El Paso County looks like wide open land.

But zoom in, and you’ll see what appears to be several subdivisions.

You can see it for yourself in the map below.

In real life, though, there’s nothing here. Just desert shrubs, tumbleweeds and lots of debris.

These are the mysterious ghost lots of El Paso.

“For anyone who's flown over into El Paso, if you've ever sat on the window seat and looked out as you're about to land, you'll notice lines, cut out almost like a neighborhood. And that's essentially what it was intended to be,” explained El Paso county commissioner Vince Perez.

It’s a story of real estate development gone wrong. Now, the repercussions of people back in the 1960s and 1970s are coming back to haunt us today.

Commissioner Perez tells KFOX14 that it all started when a group called Horizon Land Corporation began selling parcels of land to people across the globe.

Back in the day, they had extensive holdings all throughout the Southwest.

In fact, when KFOX14 looked through newspaper archives from the 1960s, an article came up that highlighted the corporation’s success in sales.

“They carved out the streets and carved out the plats of land where houses were supposed to be built, but nobody was ever going to live here back then. The growth just wasn't feasible,” Perez said.

That growth wasn’t feasible due to a lack of utilities like water, stormwater and sewer systems.

That’s because back in those days, there were no regulations in place that required developers to install these before selling plats of land.

It all finally came to an end in the 1990s, after the state of Texas passed laws against developing subdivisions without utilities.

But at that point, it was too little, too late for the 54,000 acres of land sitting in far east El Paso county lacking utilities.

Now, the land sits vacant. It’s undevelopable because it's all privately owned by thousands of people all over the world. Commissioner Perez says it’s been hard tracking them down.

“Many of them are deceased, and many of these lots have been handed down to children or grandchildren who don't know that they own this land,” he explained.

Commissioner Perez was right. When KFOX14 tried to find a landowner to interview, it was difficult. Most of the plats of land we came across had owners that were deceased.

But reporter Adria Iraheta finally got ahold of Ohio resident Martin DeBeukelaer, who owns half an acre of land in the county.

“We were, at the time, pretty young, I guess, and not experienced in these things. And it sounded all pretty decent. Overall, we would acquire a little piece of land,” DeBeukelaer said.

He tells KFOX14 that the corporation flew him out to El Paso when they were negotiating the deal back in the 1960s.

“They showed us maps and roads, where they'd put water in, electricity. all these good things,” he recalled.

DeBeukelaer said the salesmen told him it would eventually be developed into a nice community. Back then, he envisioned building a nice house to retire in.

But, of course, that never came to be.

“It was essentially a scam, I suppose,” he said.

As for Horizon Land Corporation, it continued its practice of selling parcels of land to thousands of unsuspecting customers throughout the Southwest for the remainder of the 1960s.

In 1981, the Federal Trade Commission essentially shut the corporation down.

DeBeukelaer and his family are still stuck with the land to this day, and they can’t do anything about it.

“You're essentially caught in a catch-22 because you can’t really build on it,” he said.

He tells KFOX14 that selling the land has been impossible.

No one wants it since it’s in the middle of nowhere.

“I just hope they'll be able to do something about it, and that someone out there can figure out if these plats can be sold or otherwise developed, either way, and not leave people in this catch-22 situation,” DeBeukelaer said.

This is why they’re taking it to the state level this legislative session, in hopes of finding a solution.

“The state of Texas has always been very protective of private property rights, and that's why it also makes it difficult to address from a public policy perspective,” Perez said.

Senator Jose Rodriguez filed SB 692, which would allow El Paso County to install infrastructure like water, stormwater, and sewer systems on plats of land that have been undeveloped or abandoned for more than 25 years.

Lawmakers hope these utilities will make it easier for landowners to start developing the land.

“I hope they'll be able to get that through. And see if this area could be developed, I’m sure,” DeBeukelaer said.

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