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To Sell a City

With the touch of a button on a key-chain remote, Sue Carolyn Wise pops open the door locks of her 1988 Rolls-Royce Silver Spur and slides into the tan, glove-leather driver's seat. Then she slides out again, walks around the car, and opens the passenger door with the key. The lock sticks. She has to get that fixed.

Wise is a real-estate agent who deals in high-end homes and looks the part. She's at that particular age at which "you no longer tell anyone how old you are, even your doctor," but wears a black mini-dress and heels. Her makeup appears scrupulously applied, and her shoulder-length hair is trussed beautifully, but its ash-blond shade doesn't appear wholly natural. She is forceful but flighty, with the demeanor of a woman who rarely has to raise her voice to be heard.

Six years ago Wise found fleeting fame, but not fortune, as the Realtor offering an entire town for sale. The asking price for Lazy Lake, an incorporated village of 40 residents in 13 houses situated in the middle of Wilton Manors, was $15 million. Wise persuaded all 13 property owners to sell if the price was right. Back then most of the houses were worth less than $200,000 apiece. Had a sale been consummated, some residents would have quintupled their money. Wise's cut might have been more than $1 million, a greater percentage than most real-estate agents earn. Wise has always priced her services above the norm. And she rarely works weekends.

The listing drew international attention. In 1995 she predicted a quick sale. Where else in Broward County could a person buy a 13-acre plot, raze everything, and erect a proper manse -- or keep the houses and be the mayor of one's own city? Wise's press release on Lazy Lake was translated into French, Portuguese, German, Spanish, and Italian. The New York Times wrote about it, CNN did a piece, and the three major news networks ran segments. Many people inquired, the Realtor says, and a few took a look, but none came up with the cash. Mexican pop star Juan Gabriel was interested, she adds, but the deal never jelled.

Then the hubbub died down. Wise focused her attention on other properties, other projects. Why didn't it sell immediately? "For one thing, one side of the property was so bad I would be afraid to go there in the daylight," she says, referring to a neighborhood bordering Lazy Lake on the north.

She worked on the sale for two years. But the contract has long since expired, and a handful of homeowners who originally signed are gone. Wise won't concede the place is really off the market -- she still believes everyone has a price -- but for the moment Lazy Lake isn't for sale.

So Wise agreed to show the property to New Times. As soon as she turns the Rolls north onto Lazy Lane, the only street in town, it's easy to understand why people grow fond of this place. Just wide enough for two cars to pass, the road is shaded by a lush canopy of Australian pines, strangler figs, and ficus trees. Houses are set back in broad swaths of lawn and vary in style from modern rambler to lakeside cottage. Most were built in the '50s and '60s; some are large, but none is overly opulent.

Wise steers into a driveway, shuts off the engine and walks to the back of the car to fetch what she calls her "construction" shoes from the trunk -- black flats almost identical to the pair she has on, except for a bit more wear and tear. A man with close-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed beard greets her. He's congenial but reserved, as if he can't figure out what a Rolls-Royce is doing in his driveway on a Friday morning.

Wise shakes his hand. "May we look in your back yard?" she asks, already making steady progress toward the front door.

"Sure. I guess," he answers. "Who are you with?"

"We're just taking a look around," she answers obliquely, as if she hasn't quite heard the question.

"Are you tourists?"

"No. I'm a broker. Isn't this place beautiful?"

"I love it here. And I should tell you that we're not interested in selling. Not for a million dollars."

"Oh come now," she teases. "You'd sell for a million dollars."

It turns out that Lyn McFarland has been a Lazy Lake resident for only two months. He moved from Maryland and "flipped out" when he saw this house. He's heard few things about the history of the tiny enclave. To him the property isn't one-thirteenth of a town, it's a spacious home on a big, wooded lot that happens to have a spring-fed lake out back. A hell of a find in Broward County these days.

It also turns out that McFarland doesn't own the place. His roommate Dana Merrill does, and Merrill would be gone if the price were right. "It's a beautiful place to live," he says. "But you know, money talks."

Next door is the rambling spread locals refer to as "the viatical house." Financial Federated Title & Trust operated there until federal prosecutors charged in the fall of 1999 that company officials scammed investors out of $111 million in a viatical-insurance-fraud scheme. Company president Frederick Brandau got a 55-year prison sentence this past December. The story made the front page of The Wall Street Journal and quelled the notion of Lazy Lake as a Mayberry-like place where each resident knows what everyone else is doing. The viatical house sold recently for $425,000.

Back in the Rolls, Wise drives to the end of Lazy Lane and honks her horn. Joe Fodera opens the gate and offers a tour of his two-acre spread, complete with a fountain in the front and a deck in the back overlooking a secluded lagoon ringed by towering Australian pines. Across the lagoon sits his small workshop. The quickest way to get there is by rowboat.

Fodera has lived in Lazy Lake for 12 years. It was his idea to put the whole place up for sale in 1995, and he's the one who brought in Wise. "It was a good idea that just didn't have enough time," he says. "We thought if we could get everyone together, we could make a handsome profit."

It was important that everyone sign on, he notes. "It's very complicated to sell a city. It's easy to sell 13 residences if everyone agrees. You skip all the legalities."

On the other side of the lagoon, one of the village cats slinks to the edge of the water for a drink. There are three community felines, says Fodera: the orange-and-white one, the white-and-brown one, and the black one.

Joe McCallion's place is the next stop. McCallion and his roommate, Jim Rafferty, live in a kind of faux castle, complete with a turret, on the outer ring of Lazy Lake, NE 24th Street. Their place is built on the side of a hill, so you enter at street level and walk onto a veranda in back with a stunning second-story view of the lake. Only the din of traffic on nearby Andrews Avenue shatters the illusion of a northwoods lake resort.

McCallion, age 62, is a semiretired electrical contractor from Boston who moved to Lazy Lake in 1989. He has a shock of snow-white hair, wears bright red shorts, and likes to feed the turtles from his deck. He has served on the town council and says government is no fun in this burg. A few months ago, residents had to band together to throw three people off the council. They wanted to raise taxes $1500 per house. Lazy Lake has among the lowest tax rates in Broward, and the majority of residents wanted to keep it that way. "We do have a shortfall," he notes. "We want to do stuff with the lake."

The town council meets quarterly, and the lake consumes most of its time -- every property owner has a one-thirteenth stake in it. At the January meeting, the council members approved a plan to spend $5544 to treat the lake for weeds, install aerators, and restock it with weed-eating carp.

Two doors away from McCallion's castle is the home of Lazy Lake's longest-tenured resident -- a woman who has lived here 48 years without air conditioning and insists that her name not be mentioned in the newspaper. It just brings trouble with the neighbors, she says. Her father built her house, which is best described as "rustic."

She has also served on the council, and did ten years as the fire chief, "though they didn't even give me a badge or a helmet," she says. Despite the fact that she's about as isolated as one can get in eastern Broward County, she's considering a move to Central Florida to find real solitude. She'd sign on to a wholesale buyout but doubts a buyer will materialize. "It just wasn't a very good idea," she says.

Wise, ever the high-end optimist, begs to differ. Undaunted by Lazy Lake's ambivalent attitude toward being sold, she's ready to try and reassemble the deal. "When people hear the amount of money we're talking about, anyone will move." Then she climbs back in her Rolls and takes off, a cloud of blue smoke trailing from her exhaust pipe.

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Bob Whitby

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