Back in the 1960s, Cape Coral was a boggy swampland with just 200 people and a couple of houses dotted along dirt roads.

These days the town in southwest Florida is one of America's fastest-growing developments.

It's not really a city - not yet, anyway - because it's chock-full of residential allotments with next to no schools, supermarkets, shops or restaurants.

The roads aren't great either and the infrastructure is questionable, with no real planning for sewerage or a permanent supply of drinking water.


The land can only be described as muck, which is barely above sea level, and last month was almost directly in the path of Hurricane Irma.

And yet, people are snapping up blocks like there's no tomorrow.

Trouble with a dirt-cheap price tag

According to Politico journalist Michael Grunwald, it's "one of the most notorious land scams in Florida's scammy history".

It was the brainchild of Leonard Rosen, who bought a chunk of mangrove swamp on Florida's Gulf Coast, snazzed it up with the name "Cape Coral", and started hawking it as a paradise that anyone could afford.

He and his brother advertised it as a "Waterfront Wonderland" and a "City-in-the-Making", giving people the chance to buy their own slice of sunshine complete with affordable homes, a friendly community, and stunning environment.

The trouble is the dirt-cheap price tag didn't really buy dirt.

"It passed off inaccessible mush as prime real estate, sold the same swampy lots to multiple buyers, and used listening devices to spy on its customers," Grunwald wrote.

The region is a boggy swamp, and the canals are essentially emergency plumbing. Photo / Supplied
The region is a boggy swamp, and the canals are essentially emergency plumbing. Photo / Supplied

One of Rosen's tactics was offering prospective buyers a free stay at a local motel, which was bugged so salesmen could learn what made them tick and tailor their pitches accordingly.


"Its hucksters spun a soggy floodplain ... as America's middle-class boom town of the future, and suckers bought it," Grunwald wrote.

The dream is still very much alive - the region recorded America's most explosive population growth for the past two years in a row.

Cape Coral is now home to 180,000 people and that number is expected to double again over the next 20 years as more Baby Boomers retire.

Trouble is, just one big storm could wipe it out.

Disaster waiting to happen

The swamps have been drained and developers dug 643km of canals - more than Venice, Amsterdam, or anywhere else in the world - which act as both the stormwater plumbing system and Cape Coral's main selling point.

"Those ditches were an ecological disaster, ravaging wetlands, estuaries and aquifers.

Cape Coral was a planning disaster too, designed without water or sewer pipes, shops or offices, or almost anything but pre-platter residential lots," Grunwald wrote.

"It's literally a peninsula jutting off the peninsula, the least natural, worst-planned, craziest-growing piece of an unnatural, badly planned, crazy-growing state."

Mangroves, which prevented erosion and provided natural storm protection, were torn down; wetlands, that absorbed floodwaters and filled the aquifers, were paved.

The area fluctuates between droughts and floods so wildly earlier this year, the fire brigade worried there wouldn't have enough supply to power hydrants.

Water comes from a salty, finite pool 250m underground and is run through a $117 million treatment plant before it's fit for consumption - but no one is sure what they're going to do when the source inevitably dries up.

During Hurricane Irma, the residents were ordered to evacuate, but the city is so low to sea level the Red Cross declared it too vulnerable to bother opening shelters.

"This unsustainable paradise still feels like paradise, even if its bays are polluted and its wells are running dry, even if it's at perpetual risk of an existential mega disaster," Grunwald wrote, noting the environmental legacy was "brutal".

One day, the swamp will reclaim the ground around this glamorous swimming pool. Photo / Supplied
One day, the swamp will reclaim the ground around this glamorous swimming pool. Photo / Supplied

Residents know what they bought

Grunwald's article is currently making headlines around the United States.

"It really doesn't highlight all the great stuff the city has," disgruntled local councillor Richard Leon told Fox 4 news.

However, others recognise the truth in what he wrote.

Dana Brunett, the council's economic development manager, told Fox 4 the city has worked hard to diversify existing development and attract business.

Planning co-ordinator Wyatt Daltry told Politico the city was trying to fix its problem of having too many houses and not enough infrastructure, and he noted it's hard to undo half a century of chaotic development and chronic under-investment.

"People who move here are, frankly, putting themselves in a vulnerable situation ... If Irma had turned an hour later, we'd be having a very different conversation."

Ray Judah, a councillor for 20 years, said nothing was being done to deal with rising sea levels or protecting environmentally vulnerable areas.

"Around here, we're going whatever's the opposite of sustainability ... We're just waiting around for the next disaster," he told Grunwald.

However, resident Brian Tattersall, a former insurance broker from Canada, said it wouldn't deter the next generation of newcomers.

"Look, if we get 15 feet of storm surge, holy sh*t, that would take out Cape Coral," he told Grunwald over a beer on one of the canals.

"Even then, no way."