Ol' Man Wiley Had a Farm

The scene might have come from Wiley Waldrep's worst dream.

The peeled earth, shorn of all trees and vegetation, cracked and exposed under the sun. Long lines of exhaust-spitting traffic on all sides. The loud, rumbling bulldozers moving dirt next to streets leading to nowhere.

It's just what Broward's last real cowboy never wanted to see happen.

Waldrep could have been richer than most people dream about, but he routinely turned down the multimillion-dollar offers for his land. While his cows lazily roamed his pasture, development marched to his gates. University Drive, the harbinger of western growth, formed the farm's eastern border in the early 1970s. Pine Island Road cut a path to the west. And on the north and south, Stirling Road and Sheridan Street kept widening.

But Wiley's farm stayed the same, year after year.

"I'll never forget, one day he was upset because he couldn't afford his grain bill," says David Hlay, former deputy property appraiser and longtime Waldrep friend. "I said, 'Wiley, you're sitting on $50 million here.' And he told me he didn't care, that he loved his cows and was going to stay on the land until he died. He was a kind, sweet man, and he really loved those cows."

Waldrep, who owned just one suit and rarely ventured from his farm, died 11 years ago at age 91. And the Waldrep Dairy Farm, one of the largest pieces of undeveloped land in the county, was still going strong.

His grandkids weren't as stubborn as he was. They tried to keep the farm going, but in 2003, they finally succumbed to fate when they optioned the land to a Greek developer called Tousa Inc. for $104 million.

It ended an era — and brought all of the vexing, complicated problems that Wiley Waldrep abhorred. Now a sprawling $1 billion, 1,900-home housing development called Monterra, the property has been the subject of squabbles over density, schools, impact fees, and traffic ever since.

And last week came the chance that the project — which is expected to increase Cooper City's 30,000 by 20 percent — may languish for years without completion.

Tousa went bankrupt. The Chapter 11 filing wasn't unexpected, though it confirmed that the once high-flying developer is in a fight for its life to stay afloat.

Last year, the company, which traded at $30 a share two years ago, was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange after it dipped under a dollar; it's now trading on the Pink Sheets for penny stocks. Last week, it was going for about 15 cents a share.

That's what happens when you have a debt load of $1.8 billion and can't afford to make payments on the interest. In effect, the company is a mirror image of many who bought its homes: overfinanced and going broke.

Although the company has been offered a rather paltry $150 million line of credit to help it survive and a hired company spokeswoman says it's business as usual at Monterra, progress on the development has been slow. Tousa has refused to commit to a completion deadline because of the overall housing downturn.

On top of that, sources say the developer has abandoned a city-approved project in Parkland to build 200 homes, apparently leaving the land in the hands of the deal's financier, GMAC. Company spokeswoman Jennifer Mercer said she didn't know if that was the case, and she failed to get back to me after saying she would investigate.

The irony is that a decent percentage of residents in Cooper City are hoping the sprawl-making project is abandoned.

"There is too much density in the project," says former commissioner Angel Palank, who has led the opposition to Monterra. He believes it should be downsized by at least half and include more commercial development. "Construction has slowed down, drastically slowed down," he says. "I just hope that the company can't finish it so we can start over."

Tousa's problems, of course, aren't unique — the entire homebuilding sector is in disarray. The largest homebuilder in America, Lennar, posted record losses last month, seeing its value crumble. With home prices continuing to drop and foreclosures on the rise due largely to ill-advised subprime mortgages, the pain only threatens to grow.

A visit to the Monterra site last week showed just how little of the project has been completed — about half of the work is done on a 149-home pocket on the west side of Pine Island that they call "Estada." The estate homes (hence the name) at the site now range in price from $676,990 to $861,990.

The company — and the politicians who backed the project, led by Mayor Debbie Eisinger — stressed the fact that there would be affordable townhomes built. Nobody seems to know when they might be completed, though.

The company didn't make sales figures available, but it's hard to imagine that people are jumping to buy those luxury units in this down market.

Tousa obviously isn't in a hurry to build more units; most of the huge swath of scraped earth across the road from Estada lies dormant. The only sign of life there was a team of about ten construction workers busy on the southwest corner of the development, blocking a lane on Sheridan and backing up traffic.

Hlay, Wiley Waldrep's old friend, drives by every now and then and laments the old days. He sees it all as a good example of the cycle of greed that has entangled the country in a big mess.

"What are they building?" he asks. "They are building those big homes. You can't buy those things. And you got people going in who can't afford them, and that's why we have the problems we have today."

Hlay is pleased about one thing, though. One of the small streets next to the land is called "Wiley Waldrep Farm Road." It's a nice memorial for the simple farmer who kept that little pocket of the world safe from the excesses of mortgagers and homebuilders for so many years — even though Waldrep would never have wanted to be anywhere near what's become of his farm these days.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman