The last frontier, first phase of Rancho Mission Viejo development opens this weekend
By Brian Park
The development company behind Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Las Flores and Ladera Ranch is set to unveil the first part of its final contribution to the south Orange County cityscape this weekend.
On Saturday and Sunday, Rancho Mission Viejo LLC will host a grand opening for Sendero, the first village of a 14,000-home community called Rancho Mission Viejo.
It’s what company executives have called “the last ride.” Over the next 20 to 25 years, the ranch will build up 6,000 developable acres of its remaining 23,000 acres of property. The other 17,000 acres, known as The Reserve, will be permanently preserved as open space and will be combined with county land to form the 33,000-acre Southern Subregion Habitat Preserve.
The case for open space was resolved following the county’s 2004 approval of the company’s long-term strategy for their remaining land, the Ranch Plan, and after subsequent lawsuits filed by environmental groups were settled in 2005.
But although the Ranch Plan has drawn praise for its foresight from local leaders and elected officials, questions about Rancho Mission Viejo’s impact on schools and traffic, as well as future governance, remain.
Sendero, also known as Planning Area 1, is the first of at least five villages that will make up Rancho Mission Viejo.
Planning Areas 6 and 7 were eliminated as part of the ranch’s 2005 settlement with environmental groups. Development plans for Planning Area 8, an approximately 500-acre area located east of San Clemente’s Talega development, are up in the air while the ranch undergoes a five-year study on the migratory patterns of the Arroyo toad.
“We won’t know whether it will be available for us to put anything there for several years,” said Charlie Ware, the ranch’s director of governmental and community relations. “It will probably be one of the last places we develop along the Ranch Plan way down the line.”
In English, Sendero means path or trail. Ware said the ranch designed its first village to serve as a gateway into Rancho Mission Viejo for travelers coming east on Ortega Highway from San Juan Capistrano and south on Antonio Parkway from Ladera Ranch.
At 690 acres, Sendero will be one of Rancho Mission Viejo’s smaller villages, according to Ware. About 1,230 attached and detached homes, spread throughout 11 different neighborhoods, are being built. The majority are grouped on the northwest corner of Ortega Highway and Antonio Parkway, adjacent to the ranch’s headquarters. The rest are located just across the highway to the east.
At the heart of the village is El Prado, which includes a 3,900-square-foot clubhouse and a community hall that, in the early going, will serve as a welcome center for potential buyers. Other amenities include Sendero Field, a 15-acre park with sports fields and community gardening plots, and The Outpost, an outdoor recreation center with a patio, bar and pool.
Within the larger community, Sendero will also feature a gated enclave of 290 single-story homes specifically for residents 55 and older called Gavilan. Those residents will have access to all of Sendero’s amenities while having exclusive access to their own 9,200-square-foot clubhouse, fitness center, meeting rooms, a bar and more.
This sort of intergenerational housing is new in Orange County, according to Ware, who added that 6,000 of Rancho Mission Viejo’s 14,000 homes will be made into 55-and-over communities like Gavilan.
“Nobody else in south Orange County is doing that,” Ware said. “We just see that demographic growing … We wanted to provide something that fits their active lifestyles in a community that’s interactive, but at the same time, give them their own separate amenities. It’s the best of both worlds and that’s what Gavilan does.”
Since it is their last development project, Ware said Rancho Mission Viejo was designed to have a close relationship with the company’s cattle ranching and early Californian heritage. Future residents will have regulated access to the ranch’s open space through The Reserve’s trail system, and homes at Sendero were designed in Spanish, Western and ranch adobe architectural styles.
Homebuilders involved at Sendero include Del Webb, Meritage, Ryland, SeaCountry, Shea, Standard Pacific, TriPointe, William Lyon and Western National Group. The homes in Sendero will range from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet and are expected to cost between $400,000 to just under $1 million.
Sendero will also include 10 acres for a retail plaza near the southeast corner of Ortega Highway and La Pata Avenue.
“It’s going to be small, ranch-style stores and shops. Not your big box stores. The acreage doesn’t support that,” said Erica Yanchus, a spokesperson for the ranch.
Ware said the company is negotiating with different providers to create a small, farm-to-market type of grocery store at the plaza. The center could also include a dry cleaner, salon, coffee shop and possibly a gas station. Once deals are signed, Ware said the entire plaza could open by late 2014.
“We’ll make it very clear to folks that other services are available in San Juan Capistrano and Ladera Ranch,” Ware said.
For south Orange County residents and future Rancho Mission Viejo homeowners, one of the immediate concerns is the impact of upcoming development on local schools.
During a presentation to the Capistrano Unified School District in late January, ranch representatives told the school board that about 4,561 students are expected to come into the district from Rancho Mission Viejo. The majority of the student population influx would likely be in Kindergarten through fifth grade, around 2,724 students. About 991 students are projected for grades six through eight with another 846 for high school. In the early going, about 408 students are expected to come from Sendero and another 1,126 from Planning Area 2.
The ranch and the district have since been negotiating a mitigation agreement to tackle the issue. The final agreement could be presented for the board’s approval in July, according to Trustee Jim Reardon.
The ranch has already identified a site for a new K-8 school in Planning Area 2 that will be constructed by the district and is estimated to open in 2016 or 2017, according to ranch spokesperson Diane Gaynor.
For now, students from Sendero will attend Ambuehl Elementary School, Marco Forster Middle School and San Juan Hills High School.
One suggestion to come out of the January meeting was for the district to possibly expand Tesoro High School by acquiring the 20 acres of adjacent land. However, Board President John Alpay said the addition of more than 800 students would push the district’s largest school to close to 4,000 students, which might stretch the school logistically, even with more space.
“There’s been no serious planning, but both San Juan Hills and Tesoro, at the present time, could be expanded,” Reardon said. “It’d be very costly, but it could be done.”
As an alternative, Reardon said the district could look into establishing a smaller high school model or “pocket academy” for the additional students. He cited the Troy Tech magnet program at Troy High School in Fullerton, which focuses on education in technology.
“There are also other kinds of academies that have to do with performing arts and environmental studies,” Reardon said. “We’re interested in building good schools in the ranch. We want to provide the same level of service out there as we provide elsewhere.”
Reardon also warned that traffic to schools would be an issue, independent of the ranch’s plans.
Last Wednesday, the California Transportation Commission approved $5.1 million to help complete the 4-mile extension of La Pata, between the end of Avenida Saluda in Talega and the Prima Deshecha landfill in San Juan Capistrano. The $94 million project still requires an additional $6.9 million in funding, but construction may begin regardless in December. Once completed, more students from Talega could attend San Juan Hills.
“That’s a major change in the circulation patterns of the school,” Reardon said.
Additionally, the ranch has also already begun grading for the construction of Cow Camp Road, just north and parallel to Ortega Highway. The new road is part of the South County Road Improvement Plan, a list of roadway modifications and transportation improvements the ranch agreed to when the Ranch Plan was approved.
Once completed, Cow Camp Road would serve as an additional connection point that would pull ranch traffic off Ortega Highway and move it north toward Antonio Parkway. Cow Camp Road could connect to the Transportation Corridor Agency’s plan to extend the SR-241 toll road from Oso Parkway.
The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board last Wednesday voted down the TCA’s application for a permit for the first 5.5-mile extension to Cow Camp Road. After hearing six hours of testimony, many from environmental activists, board members denied the application due to expected adverse environmental impacts and the belief that the TCA remains intent on completing the project in phases, all the way through to Interstate 5 near San Onofre State Beach.
However, the ranch’s plan to build Cow Camp Road isn’t dependent on the proposed toll road extension, according to Gaynor. As part of SCRIP, the ranch has also identified a road, identified on maps as “F street,” that could also direct traffic northward.
Although it currently represents only a distant blip on the radar, the issue of future governance for Rancho Mission Viejo is on the minds of local and county officials and nearby residents.
The Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, established 50 years ago by the state legislature, handles boundary changes, including city incorporations and annexations, of cities and special districts in the county. And although the commission is comprised of several local officials and leaders, including Supervisor Pat Bates, it works independent of the county.
Commissioners have met with local bodies and stakeholders to understand their concerns about Rancho Mission Viejo, according to Carolyn Emery, LAFCO’s executive officer. But, she said, the commission has yet to form any definitive plans for the area’s future governance options.
“It’s kind of hard to speculate 25 years out and we typically don’t do that,” Emery said. “Our discussions have been about present issues and how we can address them through some governance structure down there, but at this point, we don’t know what that is.”
Emery said LAFCO prefers incorporation but speculation that Rancho Mission Viejo could combine with Ladera Ranch, as well as other neighboring unincorporated communities, to form a new city is premature at this point. Market forces will play into the ranch’s plans for villages after Sendero, but even after Rancho Mission Viejo is built out, Emery said LAFCO would need to determine if there is enough revenue to support municipal infrastructure.
“We look at sales tax and different revenue options that would allow for an area to function as a city,” Emery said. “Once we have that, we also do 10-year projections to see if there’s enough revenue available to offset the costs.”
The state once provided a financial boost for newly incorporated cities through funds collected from vehicle license fees. However, a 2011 state law, SB 89, shifted that funding toward law enforcement grants, making incorporation more difficult, according to Emery.
“What made incorporations viable years ago is no longer there,” Emery said.
Another option that is essentially one step below incorporation, according to Emery, is the formation of a community service district—an independent board voted in to govern an area. Rancho Mission Viejo and Ladera Ranch are the only two communities not within spheres of influence, a type of planning boundary used to determine logical service providers for unincorporated areas.
In Orange County, there are five community service districts, according to Ben Legbandt, a LAFCO project manager: Capistrano Bay, Emerald Bay, Rossmoor, Surfside and Rossmoor.
Rossmoor filed for incorporation in 2007 and LAFCO allowed their cityhood to be placed on the November 2008 ballot. However, Rossmoor was unable to become Orange County’s 35th city because residents did not pass both parts of a two-part ballot.
Discussions regarding future governance in Ladera Ranch and Coto de Caza didn’t take place until those areas were fully developed, but with Rancho Mission Viejo, opening up talks and exchanging ideas early in the process helps LAFCO’s process, according to Emery.
“We’re saying this is your community, your city. Let’s have some discussions,” Emery said. “When you have a key player like the ranch that’s creating everything in stages, there’s an opportunity there.”
From the ranch’s perspective, Ware said future governance would ultimately be up to the residents of Rancho Mission Viejo, but as they did with Mission Viejo, the ranch would also be a resource to them.
“We let the local folks who are actually residents that live here decide that for themselves at whatever pace that happens to be,” Ware said. “I think that’s the right way to go.”
Jim Shilander and Andrea Swayne contributed to this story.