It appears Jackson may no longer have a choice. According to a Notice of Default and Election to Sell filed by Alliance Default Services of San Francisco, Jackson must make immediate payment on the defaulted loan within three months of the Oct. 22 filing date, or he will lose Neverland Ranch. Alliance Default Services did not return calls.
If Jackson does not bring the payments up to date, Alliance Default Services could have the property auctioned in a Santa Barbara courthouse. Experts say the company is more likely to retain a real estate agency to show the property privately, ensuring the highest possible selling price.
So what would that selling price be? It's difficult to gauge. The only people who have seen the ranch up close recently are a small group of caretakers.
"As far as I know, no real estate agents or appraisers have seen that property in quite some time," said Suzanne Perkins of Sotheby's. "If it's pristine, well-maintained and in excellent condition, it could go for upwards of $30 million. If it's in disrepair and the ranch has been neglected it could be lower."
Etling claims to have seen the property in 2004 and says it was in magnificent condition at that time, adding it was "maintained like English royalty." He thinks it could go for anywhere between $35 million and $100 million.
"A single, bare-acre lot in Santa Ynez Valley goes for $600,000. Even if you estimate an extremely discounted cost of $10,000 an acre, Neverland would still sell for about $26 million, and that's not including the home, structures and improvements, which the county estimates to be worth $10 million," said Etling. "So if you calculate the land is worth over $30,000 an acre, who knows? The total price could be as high as $90 million."
If such a large lot of prime Santa Barbara County land became available, development might seem inevitable. Some speculate that there must be a builder waiting in the wings, salivating at the thought of leveling the home and amusement park and dividing Neverland into smaller parcels with individual estates and hefty price tags.
"It is going to have a certain appeal for somebody to divide it into smaller ranches, 2,500 acres is more than most people need," said Kolb, "but just because it's subdivided doesn't make the parts more valuable than the whole."
Perkins agreed. "It's a large ranch and people in the county want to see large ranches preserved. And there are plenty of people out there that are looking for large properties who are willing to spend money for the privacy 2,500 acres affords."
It's unclear what would become of the Ferris wheel, bumper cars, petting zoo and other amenities Jackson built over the years. A buyer who wants a permit for new construction on the property may first have to bring all existing structures into compliance with the Williamson Act, a contract that protects farmers by ensuring that land will be used for agricultural pursuits only. That means any illegal structures on Neverland Ranch would have to be removed.
"A significant number of those amusement park structures were built without permits," said Perkins.
And what about fans who might want to pose as potential buyers to get a peek at the Gloved One's longtime sanctuary?
"Whoever gets the listing, they'll pick a knowledgeable agent who will weed out inappropriate buyers," says Perkins. "Most high-end realty companies would not even show properties of that value without getting financial verification from the buyer at the very beginning."
Neverland Ranch may rank as the most notorious piece of property ever owned by a celebrity. Whatever the future holds, it may be impossible to shake the association with the King of Pop.
"You couldn't possibly deny who the previous owner was," said Kolb. "There is no reason to do that. The property is too famous."