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ORANGE COUNTY AT WORK: CAREERS, COMPANIES, CORPORATE LIFE : Tony Moiso: Rancho Santa Margarita’s Low-Key Driving Force

Times Staff Writer

In a sales video introducing prospective home buyers to the new community of Rancho Santa Margarita, he stands dressed in a business suit atop a hill and talks about his pride in the surrounding panorama of chaparral-covered land handed down to him by his great-great-grandfather, Richard O’Neill Sr.

But Anthony (Tony) Moiso often goes unrecognized on weekends when he stops by unannounced at the information center or bicycles around the nearby 13-acre man-made lake to see the latest development.

Clad in a sweat suit and baseball cap, he has been refused admission to the lakeside clubhouse. And, in keeping with his easygoing nature, he has gone on his way rather than introduce himself as president and major owner of the company that is developing the 5,000 acres of homes, schools, shops, industry and greenbelts that is Orange County’s newest planned community.

After the O’Neill family sold its ownership in the Mission Viejo Co. in 1972, Moiso was itching to stay in the business. So he turned to the 40,000 raw acres still remaining in the family spread.

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Today, 47 years old and with the rugged good looks of a matinee cowboy idol, Moiso heads a company of 135 employees that is developing Rancho Santa Margarita. Situated on a broad plain north and east of Mission Viejo and under the twin peaks of Saddleback Mountain, the emerging development is planned ultimately to house nearly 50,000 people and provide employment for up to 26,000.

Last year 1,100 homes and apartments were sold or rented in Rancho Santa Margarita and another 1,500 are expected to find buyers or renters in 1987.

Obviously tickled by the jack rabbit start of his project, which opened a year ago, Moiso is quick to point out the contributions of his staff and his sheer good luck in launching home sales when interest rates had taken a plunge.

Buyer response has been so great that openings of new housing tracts have been marked by camp-outs and lotteries.

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Habitually self-effacing, Moiso does not emphasize his own role in the development. “He almost abhors the first person singular. He goes out of his way to say we,” said Rancho Santa Margarita Executive Vice President Tom Blum, Moiso’s No. 2 man.

But it was Moiso who prodded the O’Neill family to risk its fortune on developing more of its landholdings. Moiso, who says he got a “crash course” in community planning at the Mission Viejo Co. after graduation from Stanford University and a stint in the Army, is described by his uncle, Richard J. O’Neill, as the family’s development “quarterback.”

“He called the shots, and he called them right,” O’Neill said. He added that Moiso is “the best to come along in the family since my grandfather.”

O’Neill, the former state Democratic chairman who makes his home on the family ranch near San Juan Capistrano, gives frequent counseling to Moiso, especially on the political aspects of development. But, he says, Moiso carries the ball.

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Although Moiso had gained valuable experience developing Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita presented additional obstacles because it had no provisions for sewers and water and was farther from the freeways that are Southern California’s lifelines.

Under Moiso’s leadership, the Santa Margarita Co. has obtained $35 million in bond financing to bring in water and has built a $20-million sewage treatment plant. And it has led Orange County developers in tackling thorny transportation issues and using innovative assessment districts for financing schools, fire stations and other public facilities.

In a rare arrangement, county planners were invited to participate in the design of Rancho Santa Margarita. The resulting 15-to-20-year master plan for development has been hailed by community leaders as a model for providing shelter within the means of first-time home buyers, for balancing growth with open space, and for providing employment centers close to new residential neighborhoods.

So far the financial outlook is positive. In the first two years of land sales at Rancho Santa Margarita, 10 home builders have bought more than 319 acres for about $76 million. In addition, nine companies, including Unisys and Hughes Aircraft, are scheduled to move into new buildings being constructed in Rancho Santa Margarita’s 400-acre industrial park. The first 50 acres of that development sold for $6.8 million.

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Copley Real Estate Advisors, a subsidiary of New England Mutual Life Insurance Co., purchased half of the development in June, 1985. Copley paid $50 million in cash and provided a $10-million line of credit. The Rancho Santa Margarita Co. continues to own the other half.

Moiso owns 24% of the stock of Rancho Santa Margarita Co. and controls another 48% that is owned by some relatives and company employees, according to Dana Empringham, the Santa Margarita Co.'s chief financial officer. Richard J. O’Neill, Empringham adds, controls the remaining 28% of the company.

Santa Margarita Co. owns about 14,000 acres of the O’Neill family’s 40,000-acre ranch. It also manages the entire spread, including agricultural and land-leasing enterprises and a 3,000-acre ranch in Nevada.

Although Moiso has gained the stature of a major developer, he still is attached to ranching. The O’Neills’ herd of 3,500 cows in Orange County and Nevada is one of the largest in the state, and the family is determined to stay in the cattle business despite sustaining considerable losses from falling beef prices in recent years, according to Moiso. “We like it (the cattle business). It is how we got here,” he said.

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Uppermost in Moiso’s mind nowadays is the need to solve critical transportation problems before further growth is halted by county officials or a voter initiative. Sympathetic with those who want to tie growth closely to road improvements and thus offset a freeway logjam, he says, “You just can’t keep building houses willy-nilly and depositing these cars on a roadway that goes nowhere.”

Bryan Speegle, the county Environmental Management Agency’s manager of advanced planning, praises Moiso and his officers for taking “a leadership role since the late 1970s in terms of general planning, phasing and financing of regional highway and public facilities in the foothill area.”

Although development of Rancho Santa Margarita looks like a good idea in retrospect, those close to the O’Neill family say it was not an easy matter in the early 1970s for Moiso to persuade the very conservative bank trustees of the family ranch to spend millions of dollars in preliminary feasibility studies.

“Tony became the leader (of the family’s development activities) because he showed the biggest interest from the start,” Empringham said.

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Moiso, who lives with his wife and daughters in Newport Beach, says he first became acquainted with the family ranch during visits he made there with his grandmother when he was a boy.

He recalls that when Interstate 5 was put through the ranch in 1960 and his family started looking for someone to develop the 10,000 acres that became Mission Viejo, he “selfishly” supported a bid from Donald L. Bren (now chairman and owner of the giant Irvine Co.) and Philip Riley (the current president of the Mission Viejo Co.) because they promised him a job when he returned from the Army.

“I got out of the Army in 1965 and Philip (Riley) took me under his wing,” Moiso said. Later, he recalls, the family sold half of its interest in Mission Viejo to Philip Morris Co. in 1972 for $54 million, subsequently selling out entirely to the conglomerate.

Empringham says that after the sale of the Mission Viejo Co., Moiso intended to obtain government approvals for development of the company’s remaining acreage and then sell it in bulk to outside developers. But there were no adequate offers to buy the land, he says.

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So in early 1984, Moiso, who then had only 20 employees, began staffing up to tackle the development without any partners.

Barely a year later Moiso started getting nervous about his company’s mounting financial obligations. The company had committed itself to financing the costs of acquiring water and sewer capacity and had invested in studies for a Foothill Transportation Corridor to serve southeast Orange County, including Rancho Santa Margarita.

Moreover, Moiso recalls that the company, which then had no revenue coming in, was obliged to meet a large payroll and make payments to various O’Neill family members from whom the company had purchased Rancho Santa Margarita’s 5,000 acres for $62 million.

Moiso says he began to realize that his initial desire to go it alone without a financial partner was “naive.”

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By joining in partnership with Copley Real Estate Advisors, Moiso was able to retire all the debt of the Santa Margarita Co. and rest much easier.

“It was one of the brightest decisions ever made,” said chief financial officer Empringham.


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