HUDSON, FLA. -- The three towers rise along the Gulf of Mexico, multitiered and modernistic. From a distance, they are a shimmering white against the blue waters of the gulf and the soft clouds that dot the Florida sky, recalling those sunny days in 1983 when the Gulf Island Resort & Racket Club was going to be a part-time playground for tennis pro Eugene Mayer and movie star Burt Reynolds.

Up close, however, the buildings now are speckled with bird droppings, littered with piles of abandoned construction materials and streaked with the stains that may signal structural water damage. Weeds grow up through the cracked concrete of what were once tennis courts. Many of those involved in financing the project are in jail.

Built by a novice developer and jointly financed by seven out-of-state savings and loan associations, six of which have been seized by federal regulators, Gulf Island has dangled in legal limbo for more than five years. Since 1986, several dozen attorneys, representing the S&Ls, the developer, construction suppliers and the federal government, have fought over who owns it.

The property's tangled history is not unique.

According to L. William Seidman, who heads one of the two agencies charged with cleaning up the banking and S&L debris, thousands of properties around the country are similarly deteriorating while lawsuits drag through the nation's overloaded court systems.

The two government agencies -- the Resolution Trust Corp. and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. -- are facing about 150,000 such lawsuits, requiring them to hire about 1,000 new lawyers, Seidman said. As long as the legal wrangles persist, regulators are generally unable to sell the properties, postponing hopes of recovering some of the taxpayers' losses in the S&L cleanup.

The problem is particularly acute in states such as Florida that require a "judicial foreclosure" process, lawsuits complete with motions and counter-motions, before a property can legally change hands. And in Florida, where overworked federal judges are weighed down with drug and murder trials, such seemingly trivial matters as determining who owns a property can be deferred for years.

A few real estate experts have suggested that the federal government authorize a "quick-take" system that could override state laws and allow the properties to pass more quickly into the hands of the RTC and FDIC. But any such proposal would likely become mired in state's-rights controversy, according to Seidman and others.

Little Left of Value In the meantime, the losses are mounting.

For Gulf Island and the other legally encumbered properties, the delay can prove fatal as buildings are left to deteriorate through vandalism and exposure to the weather. The result can be an even greater impact on the taxpayers because the government, when it finally inherits a property legally, has little of value to sell to replace funds spent reimbursing depositors in failed thrifts.

Gulf Island itself has decayed so badly during its six years of legal limbo that Ted Williams, the local property assessor, said he believes the only probable use for two of the three high-rise buildings is to bulldoze them and push the debris into the water, creating a new fishing reef off the coast.

There is little doubt that the project eventually will be in government hands. The FDIC already is arranging for building management, since a few dozen of the units in the third high-rise are rented to middle-income families.

But Williams estimates losses of at least $42 million to the federal government from this project alone, based on the various loans issued on the properties by the savings institutions and the unpaid interest on those loans.

"That project never should have been there," Williams said. "It's all due to greed. People got money from banks to build projects that never should have been built. Unfortunately, we've got properties like this all over the country."

To those who know its story, the final episode of the Gulf Island saga is not the only thing that makes it symbolic of the S&L debacle that is expected to cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. Ill-conceived and poorly located, the property now serves mainly as a conspicuous and easily visible signpost for airline pilots flying to Tampa International Airport, which lies about 40 miles to the southeast.

When Gulf Island's legal status is finally settled, it is likely it will be added to the inventory of the FDIC, which manages properties from S&Ls that went out of business before the passage of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act in August 1989. It now has some 8,834 properties with a book value of $3.8 billion it is trying to sell. Some government officials say, however, that it may land instead amid the 41,000 properties in the inventory of the Resolution Trust Corp., which handles S&Ls that failed after August 1989.

The apparent confusion over which agency eventually will get the property mirrors its equally confusing present status. For example, the local representatives of the RTC and FDIC, whose offices are respectively in Tampa and Orlando and who are charged with overseeing property sales in the area, don't even know that Gulf Island is, or soon will be, a government property.

Contacted for information on the property, officials in both offices said they had never heard of it.

"Are you sure we own it?" asked the Orlando FDIC office's Joe Ferlo.

'Out of Place' Technically, because of the legal delays, taxpayers do not yet hold title to Gulf Island. The property is expected to pass into the government's hands this spring, after the obligatory auction on the courthouse steps occurs, because it is unlikely prospective purchasers would be willing to shoulder the burden of the cost of the original loan, unpaid interest and default penalties. It will then become official U.S. property and the government will confront the harsh realities not only of the ravages of time and weather but of a project that apparently was ill-conceived from the outset.

"The thing is incredibly out of place," said Tampa real estate attorney David G. Mulock. "It looks like somebody put it in the wrong place by mistake, like maybe they held the map upside down or reversed the blueprints."

It is hard to understand why so many different loan officers were able to justify investing about $28 million at such a site. Plopped in an aging, lower-middle-class neighborhood, about a half mile down a two-lane road from a major thoroughfare, Gulf Island would have required a magical feat to prosper even in boom times, according to local real estate experts. Now, however, with the market in the doldrums, the same people are at a loss as to what can be done with the project at all.

The refuse left behind at Gulf Island tells the story of where some of the money went.

A bucket of sealant sits in the middle of what was meant to be a luxury penthouse apartment, the brush still standing upright in the long-congealed muck. The kitchen appliances are beginning to rust.

At another building, thick and overgrown brush lead into a grand entry hall that houses never-used shower stalls once intended for a luxurious health spa. Decomposing construction materials lie in heaps nearby.

Upstairs, a furnished apartment awaits residents who never arrived: Dust-covered motel-quality furniture still bears the original sales tags. The paint on the walls has bubbled from humidity and mold. The lamp shades are enshrouded in plastic.

Another room is filled with piles of new, plastic-covered mattresses.

Unusable tennis courts hint at a long-forgotten plan to establish Gulf Island as a sports resort. Local residents recall how tennis celebrities Eugene Mayer and Carling Bassett were supposed to give lessons there. Others recall that actor Burt Reynolds, a close friend of Bassett's family, at one point was reported to have bought four units there.

They also recall that consulting contracts for such things as interior design and resort management were liberally dispensed from the proceeds of the construction loans.

Few today are aware of the property's existence except the local residents who live in its shadow in Hudson, home of an elderly, blue-collar population of about 6,000 people. For them, the nearly empty buildings looming on the horizon are a constant reminder that things don't always work out as planned.

"It's been a real damper on the Pasco County community," local real estate consultant King Helie said. "It took a lot to get it approved. It was supposed to be a big boost in the arm for Hudson. But it hasn't been at all."

Just as the project has fallen on hard times, so have many of those involved in Gulf Island's creation.

Novice Developer The project was developed by Joseph Senkovich Jr., then of New Smyrna Beach, which is on the opposite side of the state from Hudson. The veteran of one previous development project, Senkovich started Gulf Island when he was 29, worked on it while he was 30 and lost it to his lenders when he was 31.

Senkovich has since left the development business and now works as a sports agent. Contacted by telephone, Senkovich said he could not comment on the Gulf Island project because it is his father's responsibility. His father, he said, was unavailable for comment because he was visiting Europe.

But people in Hudson recall that the younger Senkovich was the man in charge.

The seven lending institutions involved in the Gulf Island project were equally inexperienced in building oceanfront tennis resorts. Six were based in Louisiana, and all of those have collapsed, included four closely linked institutions that were seized by federal regulators on the same day. The failures of the six were blamed on high interest rates paid to attract investors from around the country, with the proceeds invested in what regulators called "highly speculative" development projects.

Many of their top officers have subsequently gone to jail for illegal activities pursued during their brief tenures in the thrift industry. They include:

Guy W. Olano Jr., chairman of Alliance Federal Savings and Loan, a divorce attorney who entered the savings and loan business when he started Alliance in 1981. He has been convicted of bank fraud, bankruptcy fraud, income tax fraud and conspiring to make unsound loans in return for kickbacks. In addition, at one of his trials, a Drug Enforcement Administration representative testified that Olano had been linked to cocaine trafficking, and a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent testified Olano was connected to organized crime and money laundering for South American drug families.

Leonard J. Munna III, president of New Orleans Federal Savings & Loan Association, was sued by federal regulators for allegedly taking kickbacks from borrowers, and was subsequently convicted of making false loan reports and of receiving unlawful receipts from loans he helped approve.

Ralph Hosch, president of Audubon Federal Savings & Loan, was convicted of accepting kickbacks in that job. But he has since been linked to the problems at another one of the six institutions involved in Gulf Island: An indictment last year charged that Hosch acted as a loan broker while president of Audubon and helped a friend illegally obtain a $1.6 million loan from Crescent Federal Savings and Loan. He has pleaded not guilty.

At least five other officers at the six closely linked thrifts have since been convicted of illegal banking-related activities.

While at least eight of those involved in the Gulf Island project went to jail for unlawful activities, it is the taxpayers who will face the the cost for Gulf Island's losses. And it is a far higher taxpayer burden than it once might have been.

In the early 1980s, state officials had contemplated buying the then-vacant plot for a park. But the $2.7 million price tag seemed too much to pay for parkland, according to local officials.

"This is a sad story in our history," said Hudson resident Howard Sutter, who lives near the Gulf Island site and has watched the saga unfold.

Sutter is still shaking his head over the fact that the federal government will foot a bill that could reach as high as $42 million for a refuse-strewn, unfinished development project that the state could have purchased for a fraction of the price.