If you drive east from Lodi along Highway 12, the retail stores quickly disappear, giving way to vineyards and some scattered homes.
Pass the town of Lockeford, and the even smaller town of Clements, as gently rolling hills come into view.
About 19 miles east of Lodi, on the south side of Highway 12 near Lake Camanche, you'll reach a 505-acre piece of property known as Higgins Ranch, with the Tuolumne Aqueduct running through it.
Until the economy took a nosedive, this was the future site of a 600-house development. It was going to change the town of Wallace.
Then the market dropped.
The two developers who owned the property each filed for bankruptcy in 2008, with one of them reportedly owing various banks more than $972 million.
Now Higgins Ranch is up for auction, with a minimum price of $750,000. It's a far cry from the $3.2 million the developers had briefly sought when they placed it on the market. The amount is also less than the reserve in a spring auction, when nobody bought it for the minimum price of a little less than $1.2 million.
Higgins Ranch is currently leased to a dairy farmer and is making $841 a month, and the auction company is optimistic. They're sending out glossy brochures advertising the property, along with a number of other pieces of land in northern California and Oregon. They even have a sample plan for Higgins Ranch, including horse trails and a suggested spot for a large ranch-style home.
"We're finding that there are investors out there with cash and looking for a good deal," said John Rosenthal, president of Realty Marketing/Northwest, based in Portland, Ore.
For the residents of Wallace, the auction is just the latest twist in a long, drawn-out saga involving debates about sewer upgrades, housing plans and environmental reports.
"Higgins Ranch would best be described as a gleam in someone's eye," said Chuck Cantoni, a long-time member of the Wallace Community Services District.
Development company Reynen & Bardis had been in negotiations for the project, which included extensive sewer system upgrades for Wallace. But first they planned to develop a couple smaller areas first, Cantoni said. That didn't happen either.
Instead, both John D. Reynen and Christo Bardis filed for personal bankruptcy. Both are attorneys, though Reynen hasn't been licensed to practice in California since 1999, when he stopped paying his bar dues, according to the California State Bar Association.
As the economy dropped, the developers faced a number of troubles, including lawsuits over structural problems. In August, several dozen Rancho Murieta homeowners settled with Reynen & Bardis, as well as an engineering firm, because their homes had developed cracked walls and foundations due to the soft ground on which they were built.
And then there are the bankruptcy matters. The Chapter 11 filings appear to be drawing to a close, according to voluminous federal court filings. How much of Reynen's $972 million will be repaid to banks and others isn't clear, though his attorney alone wants $418,158 in fees.
Reynen was not in his Mather office and his assistant did not return a message.
The Higgins Ranch property was foreclosed and is now owned by Umpqua Bank, which is based in Oregon but also has a branch in Lodi.
Now buyers have until Nov. 18 to submit sealed bids for the reduced price. Rosenthal said there has been twice as much interest this time and that his firm has received "multiple offers," though he declined to give specific numbers of bids.
Bids will be opened after 5 p.m. the day the auctions close. If more than one buyer places a bid for the same highest prices, the auction company will contact them and ask for their best offer. If the highest offer is below the $750,000 asking price, it will be up to Umpqua Bank to accept or reject the offer, Rosenthal said.
Whether Higgins Ranch is ever developed or remains an open area is unknown. Just in case an ambitious buyer decides to continue the housing plan, Cantoni said the development remains in the sewer district's 15-year plan.
About the auction
Sealed bids are being accepted until 5 p.m. Nov. 18. The reserve price is $750,000, down from a previous asking price of $1,175,000.
To receive more information on the property, call (800) 845-3524 or go to www.rmnw auctions.com/0904/144.htm.