The Good Lord Is Not Making Any More Land

Author: Steve Taylor
Date Published: 01/25/1990

THE GOOD LORD ISN’T MAKING ANY MORE LAND, and he isn’t making any more like “S.A.” Sam Greene either!

It was late summer when I met Major Beau Clark at the river pavilion in the subdivision. He had not seen his Crossing property since he had bought it back in the middle 70’s. With a tinge of embarrassment he had earlier explained over the phone that he didn’t remember exactly where his lot was located.

We made our way to his property with the aid of a plat map. After Maj. Clark re-familiarized himself with the boundaries of his private piece of Texas, we talked about all of those things that landowners are interested in. Were lots selling? How were values doing? How many homes were in the subdivision now? The usual questions.

Maj. Clark told me that he was watching a television show recently in which someone said, “If you believe that, you’ll buy land from a television ad.” He said that he digested that obvious reference to stupidity with a bit of chagrin since he had bought his Crossing property as the result of a Sam Greene TV ad. I confessed that I had been drawn to the Crossing by a similar radio advertisement. We both agreed we had no regrets. That evening I reflected on this conversation, and I wondered what Sam Greene was doing these days.

Sam Greene, Jr. sold Texas real estate, and he sold it big time. In ten years he sold more than a billion dollars of Texas dirt … and rock and cedar … The terms were right, just a little down and “easy monthly payments.” Sam worked for Lakecroft, a division of U.S. Industries (USI), a major player in American business. But Sam Greene overshadowed Lakecroft and USI together.

It was Sam the people came to know — mostly through his advertising. Sam starred in all of his ads, his velvet voice painting pastoral landscapes on the listener’s ear or his imposing TV presence beckoning with the image of everyone’s favorite uncle. Sam could sell him himself. More than a billion dollars worth, Sam could sell himself.

Sam Greene’s Texas Hill Country was just east of Eden. Stately Oaks gave shade to a fair land with gentle hills and babbling brooks. Every day was spring, and ownership was oh sooooo easy — next to nothing down and teeny tiny little payments. You couldn’t listen to or watch one of Sam’s ads without feeling that growing thirst welling up inside you, a thirst that only Sam’s lovely land could quench.

People used to be surprised to find Sam on the property he was hawking. But it wasn’t uncommon to find him there — surrounded by salesmen herding bashful buyers through the easy process of ownership. His enthusiasm for owning Hill Country land was infectious, and it spread easily to his army of salesmen and his thousands of buyers.

Sam’s marketing skills and our lust for land undoubtedly made him a millionaire. It might even be safe to add “many times over.” But that was then. I wondered what Sam Greene was doing now.

Probably 60 to 70 percent of the current property owners in The Crossing purchased their property from Lakecroft through Sam Greene, Jr. or one of his sales representatives. Of the 31 subdivisions Sam developed for Lakecroft, The Crossing was his last and in many ways his crowning achievement.

I could not help but think that other property owners were as curious as I about “whatever happened to Sam Greene, Jr.” [The “jr.” is especially significant in this case, as Sam’s father (Sam Greene, Sr.) was involved in selling Crossing property with Lakecroft and still owns several lots in the subdivision.]

The San Antonio Express-News featured Sam wearing a mitre and black robes on the cover of their Sunday Magazine section in 1985. The article explained that Sam Greene, Jr., former monk, social activist, millionaire land merchant, TV and radio pitchman extrordinaire, was once again immersed in the monastic life.

Sam and I had mutual friends during the ’70s, but we had met only on two occasions. I had known that he had left a monastic life to enter the real estate business, and I had known about his social and political activism, and I was not surprised to find that he had returned to the monastic life. I was, however, surprised to learn that he had exchanged Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy.

It was 9 p.m. when I telephoned Christ of the Hills Monastery. A gentle male voice answered the phone. “Could I speak to Sam Greene,” I asked. The gentle voice answered in slow, measured tones which implied a sense of timelessness.

“Bishop Benedict has retired for the night,” said the gentle voice. “May I have him return your call in the morning?” I was still adjusting to the “Bishop Benedict” shock, but managed to say that I would call back. When I connected with the Bishop on the phone the following morning he consented to an interview the following day — obviously impressed with my press credentials as a reporter for the Crossing Newsletter.

BISHOP BENEDICT AND CHRIST OF THE HILLS MONASTERY

Oak trees threw fleeting shadows across our windshield as Judy and I drove the twisting back road that connects Kendalia to Blanco. Bishop Benedict had explained that the monastery was quite near Blanco, and from The Crossing this scenic Old Kendalia Road was the most direct route. An ostrich stared at us from the midst of a small herd of gazelle as we passed one of several exotic animal ranches along the road.

We could see the white chapel of the monastery while we were still a considerable distance away. The monastery occupies 105 acres atop one of the highest points in Blanco County. As we climbed the hill into the central compound, we discovered the monastery resembled a small village. It was reminiscent of a movie set — a Gene Autry-style western town perhaps. The main street is wide and dusty, and several of the buildings resemble scale models of larger buildings. Even the man who walked rapidly to greet us could have passed for a Gene Autry extra.

Our greeter departed to announce our presence to the Bishop, and we were turned loose to browse the gift shop and book store. The walls of the gift shop were covered with religious icons. The icons are produced by the monks and bear a decided “Eastern” influence in their religious imagery. Aside from their religious significance, the icons are beautiful works of art generally consisting of a color reproduction of a stylized painting of a prominent Christian religious figure laminated to a handsome wooden plaque.

As we were waiting for Bishop Benedict, several carloads of visitors had unloaded in front of the Icon Shop. A young monk wearing a black cap and a long flowing black robe gathered the visitors into a group for a tour of the monastery. Judy decided to join the tour, leaving me to wait for the Bishop.

I was conducting my own unescorted tour of the grounds when I heard a resonant, authoritative voice asking, “Where did the fellow go who was waiting to see me?”

Sam Greene/Bishop Benedict was addressing the fellow who had first greeted us on our arrival. I hurried down from the hilltop which I was exploring to a warm and enthusiastic greeting by the Bishop. An impressive salt and pepper beard framed the lower half of his face, and a black cap (called a Scofia) clung to the top of his head. The Bishop is a large man with a considerable girth, and he appeared as a consummate religious authority in his layered black robes (called Razons) which extended almost to the ground. Around his neck lay a necklace of silver which supported a large Panagia medallion which was suspended at about the level of his heart. His right hand was busy working the beads of a rosary. He directed me to a nearby building where we sat at a long dining table that was bathed in the morning sunlight. A large man appeared from the adjoining room to offer us coffee. The Bishop and I began reminiscing about our last meeting, and then our conversation turned to The Crossing.

Bishop — I want to thank you for putting me on the mailing list for your Newsletter. Judging from appearances things are going quite well in The Crossing.

Taylor — Yes, we are doing well and especially so considering the incredible diversity of income levels which our property owners represent. Most subdivisions I’m familiar with have an ownership made up of people in one economic group or another. In The Crossing we have property owners who represent virtually every segment of the economy — from the truly rich to people who are probably flirting with the poverty line.

Bishop — Yes, I purposely did that as a matter of fact. What creates that lack of homogeneousness in owners if the variety of deed restrictions. I intentionally provided for that variety in the effort to create a sense of community in The Crossing. When deed restrictions cater to one class of people exclusively, as they most often do, the end product is really the antithesis of community. It is the diversity of ownership that makes for a dynamic community. By establishing different levels of deed restrictions I sought to bring different kinds of people, at least people from different economic levels, together. Of course these people of different economic levels would share the common bond of wanting to live in the country.

I was thinking this morning before you came about what made The Crossing unique. I think every subdivision is like a painting. It can either be the natural expression of the artist or it can be paint by numbers — a contrived system forced upon a piece of land with no consideration for the natural qualities of the land. With The Crossing, that wasn’t done. We really gave Al Armstrong (the Civil Engineer who designed the subdivision) a free hand. We, of course, had economic constraints. There would have been more large tracts if the economics would have permitted it, but our land cost was just too high. I think that would have been the only thing we could have done which would have been an improvement on what we did do. It would have been nice to have some 20-acre tracts.

Taylor — We do have a number of large tracts now, where people have bought adjoining land and created parcels as large as 20 acres.

Bishop — I would have liked to have been able to make ownership of large tracts available to more middle-class people, but again, the economics were just not there for that. Some of the land in the back (Hidden Lake Section) by its very nature dictated large-acreage tracts. So we fortunately were able to provide some large tracts. Had it not been for these topographic considerations, I don’t think U.S. Industries would have let us have any.

Al Armstrong really created a work of art there. That’s probably the greatest subdivision he’s ever done, and he’s done a great number.

Taylor — how did you happen to find the property that is now The Crossing?

Bishop — I owned, together with some general partners, a real estate company that dealt with farms and ranches. I got a call one day from Doctor Winter about that land. We had sold another ranch for him previously, and that is why he called me when he wanted to sell what is now The Crossing.

I remember going out there that first time, without Doctor Winter. He was living in California at that time. I knew immediately that this was a special piece of land — one that we could do something significant with. So I really pushed U. S. Industries into buying the property — which was not that hard to do. I had sold them another piece of property on the Guadalupe River called Rivermont which G. G. Gale marketed for them. Rivermont had proven profitable, so they trusted my judgment.

Taylor — I understand that you developed 31 subdivisions with U. S. Industries. Where did The Crossing fit in this number?

Bishop — I think it was the last subdivision I did from start to finish. I left U. S. Industries before all of the lots were sold in The Crossing, but the subdivision development was completed when I left.

Of all of the developments with which I was involved, I am proudest of The Crossing. The Crossing really is the kind of subdivision I wish they all were. But of course one doesn’t have the competence when one begins a career, and also the reality is that I had to deal with the limits imposed on me by financial and planning constraints.

The Property Owners Association (POA) is probably the most significant thing we did to assure the development of a true “community” at The Crossing. I knew that the only way that a POA would work was to have it in place from the very beginning, even though it was a liability in terms of selling the property. A lot of people didn’t buy property there because they did not want to be part of or have to deal with a POA. I think their fears were misguided because they probably had never seen a POA that worked right. I truly believe that a good POA and a diversity of people can create a true sense of “community.” The POA is a real important factor in The Crossing.

Taylor — I know you were a Benedictine Monk and a social activist back in the 60’s, so how in the world did you get into the business of developing subdivisions?

Bishop — I was running a boys’ ranch with several other monks. As a product of the War on Poverty, some funds became available for the boys’ ranch if it could show that it did not have any religious affiliation.

In the interest of getting the money for the boys, we turned the ranch over to a non-denominational group and went to farming. We went broke as farmers, and it was at this time that I was on my way to Austin to get a job as a cook. The rear end fell out of the car on Interstate 35, and I had $2.71, a jar of peanut butter, and a loaf of bread to my name. I was traveling with Father Vasili, and the two of us began hitch-hiking. A fellow by the name of Bill King gave us a ride to Austin. Bill worked for a large developer by the name of David Miller. During the course of this ride he said that I should be selling real estate rather than taking a job as a cook. I told him “I don’t know how to sell land, I’m a monk!” He said if I’d give it a try he’d give us a free place to live. Well that meant everything at that moment. I didn’t have a place to lay my head that night, so I tried to get him to hire me as a janitor, but he kept insisting that I could sell land.

The following Monday morning he took me to the field office of a subdivision. All the salesmen were down the road at the cafe chasing after the pretty new waitress and I was left alone. While I was waiting for some of the sales people to come back from coffee, a couple drove up in an old pickup truck looking for land. I didn’t know where the subdivision was yet, so together we set off to find it. I took the plat off the wall. I didn’t know they had smaller ones in the desk drawer. We took that giant plat and together set out to find the subdivision — which we did after stopping at four gas stations for directions along the way.

When we finally found the subdivision, I could see they were still building the roads, and everything looked pretty impassable. I didn’t want to risk driving in there and getting stuck, so the only thing I knew to do was sell them the only lot we could see from the entrance — the corner lot. We went back to the office to write up the sale, and I couldn’t find the forms. The woman started unloading bags of coins from the truck for their down payment, and when it was all counted it proved to be several thousand dollars. I wrote their receipt on the back of a brown paper bag, and that was my first land sale.

That was the beginning of a career that lasted for 9 years. David Miller sold the company to U. S. Industries when he ran short on cash. It was either that or lose it. He was at the point of being out of cash. Although you sell property for great sums of money, it’s all in the form of notes. And it takes cash to develop property. Road builders don’t take notes. They want money. So that is how I ended up with U. S. Industries and Lakecroft. It was an incredible odyssey, but of all of it I’m proudest of The Crossing.

I had an idea about “community” in the Hill Country, and in the ’70’s that was a fairly radical idea. You and I and others talked about that in the ’70’s — that the Hill Country was a natural setting for the development of intentional communities. I never thought I would get to create one, especially on the Guadalupe River, and that the people would come together through their desire to own property. I was thinking it would be based on some philosophical bond or something like that. So far, the best experiment in “community” I’ve been involved in is The Crossing.

My dad still does some resale of property there, and I know he’s really involved there and really loves The Crossing. He looks forward to the annual meetings, and I think he still harbors the idea of building a home there.

Taylor — Before I ever saw The Crossing, I heard your radio ads. I had heard your radio spots for some of your other developments, but your ads for The Crossing seemed to tax your reserve of favorable adjectives. You conveyed a sense of “specialness” about The Crossing.

Bishop — I’ve performed a large number of weddings in my life and at least 50 of them were performed on the deck overhanging the river at The Crossing. That has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. During that time anyone who wanted to get married, I’d talk them into getting married there.

Taylor — Did you write your own advertising copy?

Bishop — Oh, yes. And I broke every rule in the book doing it. Advertising people would react with horror to my approach, but no one can argue that it didn’t work. It has been at least 13 years since one of those commercials has been on TV or the radio, and today people remember them still.

What made it particularly easy, I guess, is that I really believed that people should own land. Since I was a little boy I have believed that. And even today, while much of Texas is virtually in a depression, I believe that just as strongly. I am still telling people that they should buy land. Most people think of real estate investments as the purchase of a house, apartments, a shopping center and such, but I have always thought there was a basic intrinsic value in just “land,” especially in the Hill Country. I am a Bishop today, and I’m supposed to be living in Los Angeles. That’s where the diocesan see is headquartered. You notice that I’m living in the Texas Hill Country, and that is very much by choice.

Taylor — I have heard that the growing body of federal regulations restricting subdivision development has pretty much put an end to the era of developments like The Crossing. What is your opinion?

Bishop — Oh, I don’t agree with that at all. It might be difficult to get the financing in Texas because of the Savings & Loan crisis and the scandals rampant in the banking industry, and of course there’s the very real recession in Texas. However, there is still a market waiting to buy that kind of property.

Taylor — What about the HUD requirements which apply to subdivisions today and did not at the time The Crossing was developed?

Bishop — You comply, that’s the bottom line — you comply. Unfortunately those requirements were not made by people knowledgeable in real estate and they leave a lot to be desired. I hear all kinds of nightmarish stories still — people who have bought property in subdivisions where the roads are maintained by no one. Then there are people who are unable to get a good title to their land because the titles are so obscured. The problem you people have had with Oxford Finance was one more of incompetence, I believe, and not like what I am talking about. And as for HUD, I understand that their requirements have changed somewhat in the past few years.

Taylor — On the side of laxity?

Bishop — No. The type of subdivision that The Crossing is is not what HUD set out to police. Their target was always the large subdivision that was sold sight-unseen through nationwide marketing. These sales were most often made at dinner parties where people were not encouraged to go look at a piece of property but to make a down payment and sign a contract. These buyers were usually told that they could look at the property later and if they didn’t like it they could exchange it for a piece they liked better. That kind of “blue sky” salesmanship is what led to the situation you’ll find outside of El Paso where there is a 700,000-acre Horizon subdivision. This “subdivision” exists only in someone’s imagination. If you drive out there all you will see is the desert and a few stakes remaining from old surveys.

As opposed to this, The Crossing and other developments I was involved with were marketed in the immediate area around the development. Contracts were entered into after the buyer had inspected the property, and very few sales were made to speculators who were buying solely for the purpose of reselling the property. Most buyers of our developments were buying land for their eventual use or the eventual use of their children. This type of subdivision and this type of marketing is not what I believe HUD was after. Unfortunately HUD made a pass at the problem with a pretty broad broom, and now they are saying that they never intended to regulate these local-market developments. In fact, even at the time we were developing The Crossing, I believe we could have been exempted from the HUD requirements. But U. S. Industries, being a large company with the exposure that goes with that, preferred to comply with every imaginable requirement.

Taylor — One thing which has always puzzled me and a number of other people involved with the POA is the extension of Mountain Creek Trail all the way up to the bordering ranch property. Why didn’t you stop that road short of the adjacent property? I’m sure you’ve read in our Newsletters about the problems this has caused us.

Bishop — At the time we were developing The Crossing, a number of counties had passed regulations which required the extension of primary roads within a planned subdivision to the adjoining property line. The idea behind this was to insure the orderly development of land that would permit these multiple road systems to be tied together. With or without these requirements, I don’t think you would find a professional planner who would not extend a major road to the adjoining property line.

Some developers just used a land surveyor and not someone with a background in engineering and community development like Al Armstrong. I don’t believe Armstrong would design a subdivision that didn’t do that, whether the law required it or not. It is just bad practice and creates such colossal problems. I can take you to subdivisions where you have to drive literally 10 miles out of your way to get to some point which may be only a hundred yards away — because of short-sighted road planning. It was to eliminate that type of problem that these standards were introduced in the mid-’60’s. Kendall County adopted these requirements shortly after The Crossing was platted, and of course anyone developing a subdivision in the county today would have to comply with those statutory requirements. It’s just good planning to do that.

Taylor — the problem we have with this arrangement is that we found ourselves paying for the maintenance of a road which was, and is, being used by neighboring landowners who contribute nothing toward this cost.

Bishop — I think in the case of The Crossing that was just something we didn’t think of. It would have been perfectly reasonable for us to have added a provision whereby other people who use roads in The Crossing participate in the expense of maintaining them. It’s just an oversight. Obviously, if I were developing a subdivision today I would make that requirement.

Taylor — Are you finished with the land-development business? If the right piece of land surfaced, would you consider doing another subdivision?

Bishop — How could I do that at this point? I’m a Bishop in the church today. There is just no way that I could be involved in the way that I was with, say, The Crossing. I was involved with every aspect of that subdivision. It was a very “hands on” involvement — making sure the paving crew was putting down enough surface material, arguing with Al Armstrong over details, really, treating it just like a child. And of course I don’t have the time either. However there is a piece of land right next door here … (mutual laughter).

Of course I still have ideas. There were some things I have liked to have done at The Crossing, but I couldn’t convince U. S. Industries to spend the money. I wanted to create some garden home sites. I think there are many people who, because of their age or other considerations, might not want the responsibility of caring for a piece of property but still would like the rural setting. I would like to have developed a section of garden homes for such people with a complete maintenance program. I would have liked to have done more in the way of actual building construction. I would like to have built some earth-sheltered houses. I have some exciting ideas about native building materials that are very cost effective — considerably cheaper than conventional kinds of construction. I have some ideas using rammed-earth construction techniques, and I’m not talking about some hippy house falling down on the side of the hill. These can be $300,000 homes and beautiful homes. I would have liked to have done some of those things and set some standards.

It’s interesting that what made U. S. Industries decide to get out of the land development business was not that it wasn’t profitable. Being a conglomerate they were dealing with regulators at every level, and they made a policy decision to avoid businesses that had heavy federal regulation. As a conglomerate with high visibility on the New York Stock Exchange, their stock prices were suffering from things that had nothing to do with the economic health of the company. Every time a law was passed governing real estate regulation, their stock prices would suffer, even though we were one of the smallest companies they owned. Stock analysts look with such a big magnifying glass at these companies that things get blown way out of proportion to their importance. So in an effort to stabilize their stock price, U. S. Industries opted for getting out of everything that was heavily regulated.

I always thought that was a vey sad day, even though I was already on my way back to the monastic life. I had never gone into that business with any intention of making a life of it. I was only interested in making enough money to build the monastery. But I felt that U. S. Industries decision to stop developing property was a major loss to the San Antonio area.

Taylor — I’m sure you’re aware that San Antonio has a policy of extending tendrils of its city limits out along the rural roads and highways with the purpose of blocking the extension of smaller towns such as Boerne and Bulverde. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Bishop — Obviously you do not have enough people living in the subdivision to do this yet, but you should think seriously about incorporating as a city when your population reaches the required 200 people. There are all kinds of benefits to this. Particularly in terms of a community that is growing. It may be that later on you will want to think about a community water system or sewage treatment plant. If you’re incorporated as a city, there is all kinds of federal grant money available for these types of improvements.

Taylor — Tell me about the 12 years since you left U. S. Industries, and how you became Bishop of the western United States for the Eastern Orthodox Church?

Bishop — There was never a time I was not a monk. I was just a monk selling real estate for a while. I had developed the monastery in Whispering Hills (a Lakecroft Subdivision) and a number of other monks had joined me there. With my real estate earnings we built a furniture factory and supported ourselves through the sale of a line of handcrafted furniture.

Some time in 1978 I heard there were some monks living in the desert of New Mexico and living a really primitive monastic life. I didn’t think that was possible anymore in this day and age, so I went out there to see it … and was fascinated … and came home knowing that was exactly what we needed to do. But the reality was that we had a factory, 35 employees, a saw mill in northern New Mexico, a laminating plant on the ship channel in Houston. Our furniture business was becoming a very, very big business.

So I prayed to God to take away everything that stood in the way of monastic life. If I had known that meant the furniture factory was going to burn down, I might not have prayed quite so hard. Unfortunately, the building had become uninsurable shortly before the fire, so the fire was especially devastating. It was as though God were saying, “So you think you know how to finance a monastery? Now, trust me!” And so we moved out here with no electricity, and no running water, and no telephone. We had this trailer, that little trailer over there, and a trailer that is up on the mountain now. That first winter we heated with kerosene heaters, out light was by kerosene lamps, and we had to buy ice for refrigeration. We were living a very simple kind of monastic life.

As a part of that search, we began to search for a saintly monk — what in monasticism is called an “elder.” Christmas eve of 1980 I prayed to God for that, and the next morning, getting up at 3:30 I noticed headlights coming up our road. I watched as a man in a long black robe extracted himself from the car. He attended our service, and immediately following the service I went up to him and introduced myself. He said, “You’re not going to believe this, but my Bishop is considered a saint. He sleeps on the stone floor of a cave outside of the garbage dump of Juarez, Mexico. In the Russian Orthodox Church he is considered one of the great saints of our time. He walked 11 miles to a telephone in El Paso last night to give me exact directions on how to find this place, which was no easy feat. He has sent me here to tell you he is the one.” I immediately went to Juarez to meet him and discovered that I had found my spiritual father.

Archbishop Theodore is 90 years old. He lived through the Bolshevik Revolution. He is an incredible old man. He is, of course, Orthodox, so I became Orthodox. When Archbishop Theodore retired as Bishop of the western United States, he nominated me to be his successor. In spite of doing everything I could to escape the office, including turning it down five times, I ended up becoming his successor.

As Bishop, my responsibilities include everything dealing with the diocese, but my concern primarily is with the spread of monasticism. We’ve started five new monasteries from here which are located around the country.

My concern at this point is to pass on the spiritual legacy Archbishop Theodore has given us, for monasticism in particular. Of course my own health is not good. Certainly I’ve been very close to death a lot in the past three years, which brings me to think of my own mortality. I don’t necessarily expect to live a long time, although that of course may happen.

At this point in the interview we were called to lunch by one of the monks. We walked across the compound to a large metal building that was still under construction inside. The Bishop explained that this was their new kitchen and dining room. As we approached the buffet line, the bishop explained that we would be eating a little fancier than the normal fare. The Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7, and they were still using up the food stores that had been purchased for the holiday. The food proved to taste as good as it looked. We were given generous portions of vegetarian lasagna, pink salmon rolled in a pastry dough, a very tasty potato salad, tossed salad, feta cheese, pita and french bread, and a choice of chocolate mouse, baklava, or fruit cake for dessert.

As we left the dining room, the Bishop asked if we had seen the “weeping icon.” Judy said that she had seen it during her tour, but I said that I had not. We entered a small chapel in which a picture of Mary holding the infant Jesus was prominently displayed on a pedestal and enclosed in glass. There were no “ears” evident during our visit, but the area beneath Mary’s eyes was damp. The conducting Judy’s tour had remarked that she had