Taking it in

Most areas of the Montesoro golf course offer views of the town in the distant valley. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The desert backcountry of San Diego County has always been a great place for long shadows -- the wiry ocotillo stalks at dawn, the oasis in Palm Canyon, the outline of a bighorn sheep on a rocky ridge at sunset. But in Borrego Springs right now, nobody throws more shade than a slim, 6-foot newcomer from Sherman Oaks named Gregory Perlman.

Sporting Ray-Bans and stubble, Perlman strolls the grounds of the oldest and foremost hotel in town, then stops at an outdated and awkwardly placed fountain near the Primrose building.

"This is terrible," he says. "This is 1982 Palm Springs."

The 42-year-old Perlman may look like a 32-year-old actor on hiatus, but he owns this place. And the place up the road. And several other places. Perlman and his investment partners have bought up thousands of acres here since 2004, including Borrego's largest golf-and-vacation-home community, now known as Montesoro. In December, his company GH Capital added the town's marquee hotel, the Casa del Zorro.

He's spent close to $45 million so far -- but he has also closed down one of the town's two grocery stores and inadvertently bulldozed a nearly 2-mile path through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. On June 30, he'll shutter the Casa del Zorro for a summer overhaul, the first time anyone can remember that community institution closing for an entire season.

And so, if a desert outpost with fewer than 3,000 year-round residents and no traffic signals can be said to buzz, then Borrego is buzzing. Are Perlman and his partners visionaries who understand that this patchwork of ranch houses, mobile home parks, golf courses and desert dirt is the last piece of paradise left in Southern California? Or are they obnoxious latecomers who will ruin it?

"They're doing what they damn well please," says Chuck Bennett, a retired engineer who has been involved with Borrego civics for more than a decade.

"Anybody who has invested here is rooting for them," says Gwenn Marie, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Certainly, Perlman's new neighbors can't complain when he calls this desert outpost "the most beautiful setting in Southern California that doesn't look at an ocean." They can only assume that the hundreds of fancy homes he wants to build will secure jobs and help boost property values.

But if you ask Perlman about the town's main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, he'll tell you, "The way it is now isn't quaint. That needs to be fostered."

If you ask Anza-Borrego park Supt. Mark Jorgensen, a 30-year resident, how the new guy is doing, he'll say, "We didn't know there was anything wrong with us."

Some towns boom and bust. Borrego Springs tends to seduce entrepreneurs, then exhaust them.

Like Palm Springs, Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, this desert retreat lies a few hours' drive from Los Angeles, cradled by dry, dramatic mountains. But Borrego is a sort of desert island: 70 square miles of unincorporated town (no chain stores or restaurants), surrounded by the 935 square miles of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the biggest state park in California.

Whether you live in a Santa Fe-flavored luxury home by the De Anza Country Club or a mobile home at the Roadrunner Club, you probably buy your groceries at the Center Market and stop for a cold one at Carlee's Place. Come October, if you're not marching in the Borrego Days parade, then you'll know a bunch of the people who are. The community directory, spiral bound, still lists four-digit phone numbers because everybody's number starts with 767. When the fire district buys a new ambulance, it's front-page news in the twice-monthly Borrego Sun.

Paved roads, telephones and outside electricity didn't arrive until the 1940s. James Copley, the late publisher of the San Diego Union-Tribune and one of Borrego's key boosters, took over the town's first hotel in 1960, renamed it the Casa del Zorro and built it into a 42-acre oasis of private villas and formal service.

Just up the road from the Casa, Rams Hill was supposed to transform the town in the 1980s with its golf course and 1,000 new houses. Instead it fell into bankruptcy -- twice -- leaving about 700 homes unbuilt, 18 golf holes unfinished and nine gone fallow.

This history is well known to Perlman. He knows that more than a quarter of the area's 2,856 residents are over 65, and that many flee every June, when five months of hundred-degree days begin. He can quote Borrego's hydrology reports in detail (Borrego is slowly drawing down its natural aquifer to meet the demands of its citrus growers, golf courses and vacation lodgings), and he can rhapsodize as well as any desert rat about the bracing scent of creosote bushes after rain.

But still he's an outsider, living in Encino with his wife and three children, working out of GH Capital's office in Sherman Oaks, visiting the desert once every week or two.

Raised in Los Angeles, he went to college at Boston University's School of Management, met his wife, then came back west. Beginning in the early 1990s, he made a specialty of buying and operating apartment buildings whose tenants rely on federal Section 8 subsidies. GH Capital owns about 12,000 of these apartment units, which translates into a steady stream of federal dollars. (HUD records show that all of Perlman's buildings are in compliance with federal standards.)