Ski community living offers an escape from the masses
In the air-warping heat of California's Palm Desert, an enticing mirage rises from the sun-baked earth. Framed by snowcapped mountains, its emerald waters beckon those thirsting souls seeking an unspoiled oasis of recreational peace and privacy.
This vision isn't some cruel tease that eventually disappears into oblivion. It's a real water skier's Shangri La known as Shadow Lakes Estates, on the outskirts of Palm Springs. With gated access, a tournament-capable lake and homes that sell in the millions, the exclusive community caters to a clientele that can well afford to pay the cost of freedom from the lawless maelstrom of overcrowded waterways.
As the popularity of water sports and boat ownership has grown, public ski sites have shrunk accordingly, requiring a larger chunk of time to ski the same number of passes, while limiting the fun factor as well as the ability to ski safely. Following the lead of golfers who sought to abandon slow-playing, poorly maintained “munies” for the convenience of their own private golf communities, skiing enthusiasts are increasingly escaping to the refuge of their own home lakes.
”As I got into it, I learned that as in any other sport, private facilities are extremely desirable,” says Kevin Loder, Shadow Lakes' creator. “People are looking for private areas, and water skiing is just one that was waiting to be tapped.”
A ditch in a desert
Water skier and visionary Lance Renfrow is credited with the development of the first private residential water-ski site in 1972 — Wet Set in Newberry Springs, Calif. — but the first ski communities actually began with the construction of man-made tournament ski lakes in the late '60s.
“A guy named Dr. Jack Horton went up into the Mojave Desert near Barstow and bought 40 acres of land,” Loder explains. “He figured all you need is a lake about a half-mile long and 220 feet wide, and you'd have yourself a slalom course. That was kind of the birth of the tournament ski lake. You'd get maybe a half-dozen skiers together who would pool their money, and they would all own shares of a corporation that would own the lake. That gave you the right to put up a trailer or a home on the site. The approach was a hard sell — no bank would finance it, not many people wanted in and you'd have to do it out-of-pocket — but that's how the ski communities evolved.”
When Loder's construction sector took a downturn in the early '90s, he used the spare time to examine whether this idea of putting homes on a tournament-quality lake would fly. Palm Springs, widely known as a high-end golf mecca, would be a more suitable location for the kind of upscale project he envisioned. “I wanted to do a nice development, not some bootleg, catfish farm-slash-water ski lake with a bunch of motor homes or prefab trailers,” he says.
The result is a residential ski site that offers two miles of roller-dampening shoreline for the discriminating skier, and something even more valuable for some of Loder's nonskiing residents.
“I've got guys who aren't even really into water sports who are getting into their 60s and 70s,” he explains. “They lived on a golf course where all their grandkids could do is drive around in the golf cart and get into trouble, and it got to where the kids didn't want to come see them anymore because there was nothing to do. When they saw this place, they'd call their kids and say, 'What if we sold our house on the golf course and moved to a lake, where you can swim and fish and ski?' Those kids will be there all the time now.”
Ski Texas, in Rosharon, Texas, outside Houston, was one of the first ski communities located within commuting distance of a major metropolitan area. Built in 1983 by the LSF Development Corp., it was the guideline for their other five private communities in the Lonestar State, which offer a palatable price range for working families
“All of our locations are designed so you could live there full time; most people do,” says Gordon Hall, president of LSF. “Our typical customers are families that are looking for smooth water and good locations where they can enjoy skiing on a more frequent basis instead of having to dedicate a whole day or a weekend. We're not trying to be a super-premium product. We cater to the family that's still in their peak earning years.”
Rusty Gilmore, vice president of a commercial dinnerware company, reserved his home in LSF's Lago Santa Fe community in the Houston suburbs when it was just a patch of sod in a pasture. The 46-year-old husband and father of three wanted his family to experience the kind of skiing he'd enjoyed growing up on the rivers and reservoirs near Jackson, Mississippi, when pubic waters were less congested.
“I bought a boat when we lived in Houston, and there was a lake that had a slalom course set back where the boats wouldn't bother you,” Gilmore says. “But you could be running the course and a WaveRunner would just come tearing across your wake. When we're skiing here, you're the only boat on the lake. The community really sets a new standard when it comes to teaching someone. They've even stood out on the end of the dock and applauded.”
Skiing rotations, Gilmore explains, are self-regulated on an honor system. Residents choose their preferred ski times, which are written down at the main dock. Passes, once limited to six, were increased to eight by mutual agreement of the neighborhood, to give everyone more time on their runs.
”We designed our community to where it's just the right ratio of users to ski area, so you never really need to have a designated ski rotation,” Hall says. “When the Internet was coming around, we toyed with the idea of having an online ski reservation system and wound up scrapping it because nobody needed it.”
It was that type of atmosphere that persuaded 33-year-old Sven Hallermann and his wife, Sara, to purchase their home in the Princeton Lakes ski community (north of Dallas, Texas), sight unseen in 1999. The young couple wanted to move from Arizona to Texas to split the distance between their families—Sven's in San Antonio and Sara's in Kansas City—and to realize their dream of living on a ski lake with some acreage.
“It wasn't all that expensive to buy the lot, in comparison to somewhere in California, Arizona and some places in Florida,” says Hallermann, who has found his undisturbed sets a godsend.
“I lived in Chandler, Arizona, and I leased one of 25 rotations on a single ski lake 40 miles out in the desert,” he says. “I paid $2,500 a year. You got 15-minute rotations, and you'd do, at most, three sets. On the weekends, it would require upward of six hours to ski two 15-minute sets. I would get there at 7 a.m., and by the time I'd skied my first set, three or four other people were already in the queue to ski.
“Tonight, I'll wait for the wind to die down at about 7:15, I'll lower the boat into the water, my wife will start fixing dinner, she'll come out and drive me for 15 minutes and then go back inside and finish cooking while I clean up the boat, and we'll sit down and have a nice meal together. I can do that seven nights a week if I want to.”
Hall's Lago Santa Fe home is a private, four-lake ski haven that has hosted water skii
ng's Nationals twice, and saw Jimmy Siemers' world-record-setting ski jump of 236 feet — that's an official record, Hall emphasizes — at last year's U.S. Open. All too eager to tout the professional quality of his development's lakes, Hall admits you don't have to be hard core to enjoy the benefits ski community living has to offer.
“My wife enjoys being by the water, but she's not one of those people like myself who's been bitten by the [ski] bug to the point that it just wouldn't go away,” he says. “I like to tell people that it saved my marriage. Instead of me being gone at the lake all day, I can stay right in my back yard and do what I love to do; I can ski all day and my wife will feel like I've been home all day.”
Like any homeowners association, ski communities have their own unique sets of do's and don'ts. Gone are the days of buying a lot and plunking down a double-wide on it. Home specs are typically what you would find in any nonskiing community. Then there are the lake-use rules — speed limits, noise limits, wake restrictions, times of day you can use the lake.
“Nobody likes rules, but these communities need rules,” Hall says. “Each community is different. We'll go into a project with a boilerplate set of restrictions, then turn it over to the people who own the lots. They pretty much take it and make their own rules.”
With a preponderance of youngsters buzzing around on the residential lakes, safety becomes priority No. 1. If memories of the public water free-for-all weren't enough to inspire residents to ski and boat with care, their unanimous passion for the sport would surely eliminate any need for their neighbor to leave a nasty note on their boat dock.
“With that common denominator, the safety level is so elevated,” Hallermann says. “Nobody's willing to drink and boat with their neighbor, whereas on the open water, nobody cares who's in the next boat. There's a predictable scheme of activity on these lakes. You know what they're going to do, you know who everybody is and they have the same vested interest in safety that you do.”
Hallermann describes self-governance as a double-sided coin, where the investment of preparation, planning and time is met with equal amounts of beer, barbecue and camaraderie at the end of the day. “It requires a lot of effort, but you're working with your neighbors, and great relationships come out of those events,” he says.
“It's almost a commune. I have keys to my neighbors' home and they have keys to mine. We've hosted a movie night at the house where we cooked a nice dinner, had their kids over and had fun just shooting the breeze the whole night. That would never happen in a bedroom community without this common interest. I have so much of my neighbor's equipment in my garage and vice versa.”
Back in the desert oasis outside Palm Springs, Dr. Jonathan Braslow and his cross-lake neighbor, Jay Baden, also share a unique bond.
On any given day, Braslow, an orthopedic surgeon, can glance out the back of his Shadow Lakes Estates home and enjoy two of the prettiest sights he can think of: a view of his uncrowded, unrippled ski course; and the satisfying vision of Baden denting the crystal-clear waters using the artificial knee Braslow invented. Still skiing in his 80s, Baden got ample mileage out of his original equipment — and he doesn't have to go far when his spare starts acting up.
Since the man-made lakes of ski communities are designed with top-notch, roller-free performance in mind, it's no surprise that they play host to the premier pro ski events. Jumping's current world-beater can attest to the quality of the Lago Santa Fe waters that sent him into the record books last August, and in the May 2004 edition of WaterSki, Siemers said of Crystal Point Estates' residential lake (outside Phoenix): “Everything is perfectly manicured. The lake is phenomenal.”
Ski community dwellers not only get some of the best water in the world, but they often enjoy a closer relationship with the pros who compete — and sometimes live — on them. How many times have you heard of Tiger Woods walking off the 18th green after a dominating victory, making a beeline for the nearest links-side home and chatting casually with its resident about how to replicate that last flop-shot out of the bunker?
When the Lago Santa Fe course hosted the U.S. Open last year, Gilmore, who was next-door neighbors with pro skier Lori Krueger, played host to competitors April Coble and Rhoni Barton— in his yard.
“Rhoni stayed in her RV in my driveway,” Gilmore says. “I had her on one side and April Coble in her RV in the back. We all love the sport, so it's great to have people come in who are just unbelievable. We've become friends with the Cobles and the Mapples and the Bartons of the world. I got a little coaching from Andy; he told me to keep my head up.”
If a man's home is his castle, then what would his ski lake be? If you lived in the community that is currently under development in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the answer would be: a moat.
Steve Schnitzer, developer of the 45-unit [check the schematics on this] site on the Sunshine State's southeast coast, has combined all the creature comforts for the serious skier — including waterfront access for all of his lots — with the practical amenities of your average 12th century fortress, sans drawbridge.
“This is probably the most unique water-ski development that's been devised yet,” Schnitzer says. “My community is an 80-acre island on 160 acres of land. We're buying a half-mile square, and we're digging a 300-foot-wide moat all the way around it, the moat being four separate, interconnected water-ski lakes. Lots will be one to 1¼ acres in size.”
The project is still in the groundbreaking stage, but Schnitzer says he already has a drawer half-full of prospects wanting to know if the lakes have been dug and when they will be ready to go. One of the main enticements, he says, is the fact that the gated access in and out of the site goes through a one-way checkpoint.
That may not be enough to repel marauding hordes from invading this water ski kingdom, but parents with teenagers may have one less thing to keep them awake at night.
“If parents bought their house on the Intracoastal Waterway, their teenage children could be anywhere at any time; there's no way to keep track of them,” Schnitzer says. “Here they can only be at home or on one of the four lakes. That's a great selling point.”
Loder, a father of three, agrees that “having them out water skiing or wakeboarding keeps them from finding other, less desirable ways of entertaining themselves. I'm a firm believer that if I'm not watching my kids then they're basically unsupervised, because I can't trust any other parents; they have their own rules and morals, and those may not be mine.”
If you live the kind of lifestyle where your primary need is easy access from your skier's paradise to a multimillion-dollar business deal in the next state, perhaps Paradise Lakes Estates, near Bakersfield, California, has what you need. There's just one catch: When you hit the ski jump you must obser
ve vertical limits so as not to bump into the airplane of your neighbor.
“We've got 20 homesites, two huge tournament water-ski lakes and a fully FAA-permitted runway right down the middle, so people can taxi to their homes,” says Joe Biafora, Paradise Lakes' developer. “Everybody has their own boat, everybody has their own plane, and we have people who commute to and from work by plane.”
When the property was nothing more than a hunting club in the 1920s and '30s, it was owned by actors Clark Gable and Andy Devine, who Biafora says “used to just sit up in the shooting tower, drink and blast away.” Biafora purchased the duck pond and surrounding land from the Golden State Gun Club and turned it into a site worthy of the water ski Nationals in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
“The best wakes, the best water, the best weather, the best runway,” Biafora says.
Home prices: $500K and upward. Dues: $420 a month. Flying up to your own home lake: priceless.