BY MAGGIE BEAMGUARD, Insider Editor
Call it a semicentennial, a quinquagenary, a jubilee, or simply golden — the greater Seven Lakes community turns 50 in September.
Today’s community little resembles the sandy terrain covered in scrub brush that its founder, Fred Lawrence, first explored in the early 70’s. If pictures of the vacant 4,700 acres leave a lot to the imagination, then the development of today proves that Lawrence, a Sanford native, had imagination in spades.
According to the 2020 Census, 4,900 people now reside in three gated resort-like communities complete with multiple golf courses, swimming pools, stables, riding trails and tennis courts and pristine lakes.
As the decades have advanced and residents come and go, the history of this community can get forgotten — or go unlearned. The here-and-now papers over the sometimes complicated story of this place. But Ann Cline Norris Bass, a retired certified public accountant and an original Seven Lakes insider, memorialized the history of the early years of the development in a 2009 book, “Seven Lakes: A Place in the Sun.”
Bass worked 14 years as the chief financial officer of Longleaf, Inc. and Peter V. Tufts and Associates, the development companies of Seven Lakes, before resigning and starting her own real estate business, Norris Realty.
Drawing upon her first-hand experience, research, handwritten notes from prison and court records, Bass tells the story of Fred Lawerence and the early days of Seven Lakes. She doesn’t shy away from addressing the thorny side of the story: Lawrence’s conviction for securities fraud.
A Sanford businessman, Lawrence went quail hunting on rural land in West End in the early 1970’s. He followed his dog to a natural lake basin in the woods and, looking at the contours of the landscape, he saw potential. Shortly thereafter, he formed a partnership to purchase 1,100 acres of the surrounding ground and began to develop what would become Seven Lakes.
In the final chapter, Bass writes “My first objective was to provide a chronological order to the complexities that went into the development of Seven Lakes. The only way to accomplish that goal was to tell the good news with the bad. For with everything desirable, it always requires one man’s guts, grit, strength and tenacity to accomplish that goal. Fred Lawrence had all those characteristics, and much more.”
Not only did Bass work for Lawrence, her first husband and Lawrence were best friends in high school. Also, Bass played high school basketball with Lawrence’s wife, Mary Edna.
Given the longstanding friendship and working relationship, Bass sought Lawrence’s approval before writing her book.
“My second objective was to tell the story about Seven Lakes and its developer, Fred Lawrence, about the adversities he faced, lived, suffered and endured to make the beautiful community what it is today.”
The earliest homes were built on the community’s north side primarily as weekend and summer retreats on seven spring-fed lakes — the largest being Lake Sequoia, at 200 acres. As the community grew, amenities were added to include horseback riding stables, swimming pool, parks, tennis courts, a community clubhouse and lakefront beach areas.
By 1973, the partnership of Longleaf, Inc. had also purchased an additional 400 acres and hired Peter Tufts to design the 18-hole golf course for Seven Lakes Country Club on the south side of the community.
“I want to emphasize that this is not going to be a development. It will be a small [unincorporated] town with 6,000 to 8,000 people,” Lawrence said in an interview with The Pilot in 1977.
His ambitious vision spurred continued growth and, in 1979, the partnership acquired 3,200 acres across U.S. 211 to create the Seven Lakes West community. Purchasing land from local farmers T. Clyde Auman, Billy Johnson and Allan MacDonald, Lawrence envisioned a massive 1,000-acre lake centerpiece. Construction on an earthen dam — reported to be the largest east of the Mississippi River — began in 1983. Other amenities followed, including a community clubhouse, beach area, parks and pool, and Beacon Ridge Country Club with an 18-hole golf course designed by Gene Hamm.
But Lawrence’s legacy in Seven Lakes was tainted by a series of legal and financial difficulties that overtook his business enterprises in the mid-1980s. In early 1982, he was enjoined by the Securities and Exchange Commission [S.E.C.] for alleged security registration violations in connection with development of the community. An investigation determined he had raised approximately $6 million in violation of securities laws, according to Eugene Cella, chief enforcement attorney with the Securities Division of the N.C. Secretary of State’s office. In May 1988, Lawrence was indicted on 43 counties of securities violations and was sentenced to time in both federal prison and a state minimum security facility, in addition to restitution and community service.
Bass hopes her book may give newcomers insight into the formative years of the community today.
“Can you imagine: no roads? No lake? No nothing — but scrub oaks. That was all that was there,” she recalls. “The first day I saw Seven Lakes, Fred Lawrence took my husband and I to Seven Lakes when there was nothing there.
“We drove down, and he said: ‘Ann, we’re going to do a second-home community right here. And you are going to have to keep the books.’ And that was the beginning.”
Bass’ book features before-and-after pictures of the community, first hand accounts, and court proceedings.
Bass has a limited number of copies remaining. You can purchase a copy for $16.44 (price per book, including NC sales tax and shipping) by mailing a check payable to Annocon Publishing Co., 2406 Overbrook Lane, Sanford, NC 27330.
Staff writer Laura Douglass contributed to this report.
Contact Maggie Beamguard at firstname.lastname@example.org.