A story of deception, million dollar misrepresentation
It’s a vast, weed-choked real estate estate, larger than Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, and Las Cruces combined. The region, the rural counties of Valencia and Socorro, where thousands of land buyers have been swindled and taxpayers lost millions. Welcome to Ground Zero in one of the biggest land scams in New Mexico history.
It’s not heaven, it’s an Arroyo
To understand what happened there, you have to go back about 50 years back, when Horizon Corporation, based in Tucson, purchased over 200,000 acres of desolate pasture between the Rio Grande and the Manzano Mountains. The property stretches from Los Lunas, 24 miles south in Socorro County.
On paper, Horizon sliced the desolate landscape into neat quarter-acre and half-acre residential plots and sold them as investment opportunities. the Promotional material showed planned streets, schools and parks. There were housing estates with enticing names like Rio Del Oro and Rio Grande Estates. Horizon touted its holdings in New Mexico as the nation’s biggest land deal. The government, however, called it something else.
“They were marketing them (a lot) at fancy dinner parties or whatever way they could market them all over the country,” former Attorney General Toney Anaya said. “(Horizon was) making it look like it was the next gold rush, the land rush in the southwest. (They) were making horrible false claims about what they were actually selling,” Anaya said.
If you had lived in New Mexico in the 1970s, you would have known the development potential of this land. However, Horizon marketed its holdings to out-of-state consumers living in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Consider a quarter-acre plot on a fictitious Horizon street called “Cour de Lepanto”. If the out-of-state buyer of this lot planned to move to Lepanto Court in Rio Del Oro to build their dream home, they would be out of luck. You see, this lot is not in paradise, it is in an arroyo.
News 13 asked Valencia County Treasurer Deseri Sichler about the current reality of owning land in one of the Valencia County subdivisions Horizon peddled half a century ago. “You have mugwort. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, rabbits, scorpions. There are (some) really good sized tarantulas, ”Sichler said.
“Most of (the Horizon lots) were barren land. It was pasture, pasture. There was nothing there, ”said former AG Anaya.
In 1976, the New Mexico attorney general’s office slapped Horizon with a civil lawsuit. “We alleged fraud on their part. Deception. False statement, ”said the former attorney general.
In 1979, the Federal Trade Commission discovered that Horizon had deceived its customers by touting millions of dollars of “worthless desert land” as bona fide investments. Horizon was ordered to reimburse its clients over $ 14,000,000. That was almost 40 years ago.
The devastation continues
Today, Horizon Corporation is long gone. However, his legacy of misrepresentation continues to wreak havoc in the counties of Valencia and Socorro.
Valencia County Assessor Michelle Milam told KRQE News 13: “A man I spoke with a while ago from New Jersey was so excited to own a piece of land. (It was) the first time he had owned anything in his life. When he got to the office he was crying when he found out what he had bought because he knew he couldn’t build his dream house there, ”Milam said.
Tens of thousands of Horizon home buyers were duped in the early 1970s. With no roads, no water, no electricity, and no resale value, many buyers stopped paying property taxes and essentially abandoned their property. In a single development, Rio Del Oro, some 36,000 landowners owe Valencia County $ 6,900,000 in unpaid property taxes, penalties and interest.
Valencia County Treasurer Deseri Sichler doesn’t think the overdue property taxes are collectable. Each year, thousands of county tax notices are returned as “undeliverable” because out-of-state property owners have died or moved.
For example, among the stacks of recently returned tax notices are 250 notices for Horizon lots owned by a former Arizona company. For lots in the name of a deceased California owner, 780 tax notices returned to Valencia County as “return to sender”. And, 380 tax invoices for lots owned by someone on the island of Brunei off the coast of Indonesia were also not deliverable.
With over 100,000 unimproved Horizon lots scattered across the landscape of Valencia and Socorro counties, they now have low resale value.
“I can put it on the market, but it won’t sell,” says Valencia County real estate broker Mike Milam. “There have been no sales at Rio Del Oro except one in the past eight years,” said Mike Milam.
Under state law, if property taxes are not paid for more than three years, the parcel reverts to the New Mexico Department of Taxation and Revenue, where the property can be auctioned for arrears of ‘tax, penalties and interest. The tax department owns some 53,000 lots in Valencia County that are overdue on property taxes. However, in the past seven years, the state has only been able to auction 48 of these plots.
“There is $ 2,000,000 that could be raised for the people of Valencia County. (But) there’s no profitable way to collect that $ 2,000,000, ”Cabinet Secretary of Taxation John Monforte said.
Buyer beware again
The lack of market value hasn’t stopped some developers from picking up where Horizon left off. Consider Land Ho, a New Jersey-based wholesaler who has acquired over 3,000 Horizon plots and now sells them at weekly web auctions. Even though Land Ho’s Valencia County farms are mostly desert land, you wouldn’t know by looking at their listings.
For example, consider Land Ho Lot 4 in the Canyon Del Rio Subdivision. If you look at the photograph used to represent lot 4, you will see that it is not in the county of Valencia. It’s not even New Mexico. Land Ho took a photo of the Colorado Rocky Mountains from the internet and used it to show the desolate ranges of Valencia County.
Land Ho used an image from Shiprock to represent undeveloped land 185 miles away in Valencia County. And judging from a picture of the Chama Valley in northern New Mexico, one would think that a pristine river runs through Land Ho Lot 18. In fact, Lot 18 is a parched quarter of an acre of brush and sage.
Land Ho describes his Lot 11 as “some great views right off Facebook”. The photo, however, shows Taos Mountain 140 miles away.
Land Ho uses a tranquil Colorado mountain scene to describe his sorry, weed-choked Lot 40. And the New Jersey Land Sales Company describes Lot 33 as “an unbeatable location in Valencia, New Mexico.” The photo of this lot that Land Ho is selling shows the Dragoon Mountains in Arizona.
Land Ho sells his Lot 42 east of Los Lunas with a photo of the Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces. In its advertising copy, the land sales company claims that “you can walk from lot 42 to Manzano Mountain State Park.” Better take out your hiking boots. You see, the state park is on the other side of the mountain.
Judging by the photo Land Ho is using to promote the sale of Lot 5, the New Jersey company would have you believe that you could sit on Lot 5 with a view of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Nice try Land Ho. The hot air balloon event pictured is not in Albuquerque, it is in Thailand.
A News 13 investigation reveals that Land Ho misrepresented Valencia County land in dozens of advertisements. A spokesperson for the New Jersey company said Land Ho would remove all misleading photos from its land sale listings.
At its peak, Horizon Corporation sold nearly 139,000 individual lots to consumers around the world. Today, taxpayers owe nearly $ 11,000,000 in overdue property taxes.
“It’s an older problem than I am,” says New Mexico Tax Cabinet Secretary John Monforte, “It’s a unique problem.”