Fairbanks Ranch: a Watt Gamble Proves a Winner

Big-time builder/developer Ray Watt leaned over, took a turkey sandwich from a deli platter and surveyed the countryside from his nine-passenger turboprop Beechcraft, which had left minutes earlier from Santa Monica.

"Some people thought I was rolling the dice pretty carelessly back then," he said, taking a bite and thinking of the hundreds of acres of scrub brush his Watt Industries had bought 25 miles north of downtown San Diego, in the San Dieguito River Valley just inland from Solana Beach.

Now, 10 years after escrow closed, people might say Watt was shooting 7s.

The property, known as Fairbanks Ranch because it occupies about 2,000 acres of the 3,000-acre Rancho Zorro, acquired in the late '20s by film stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, is a subdivision of mansions, built or being built on home sites developed and sold by Watt.

Of the 618 sites, generally ranging in size from 1 to 6.5 acres, although there are some parcels as large as 39 acres, all but 62 have been sold. Prices of the remaining lots range from $300,000 to $550,000, except for two large equestrian-oriented properties that are $1.5 million and $2.3 million.

So far, about 220 families live at Fairbanks Ranch and 140 homes are under construction.

Among them: a compound being built on 10 lots for Joan Kroc, major stockholder of McDonald's fast food outlets and owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team.

Joe Davis, president of Watt Development, would not divulge names but said, "The community is not a pioneering effort anymore. The Who's Who of San Diego now own property at Fairbanks Ranch."

An estimated 83% of the buyers are from San Diego County, and the typical Fairbanks Ranch family has two school-age children and one worker, usually the husband, who is a 43-year-old entrepreneur.

Davis, who has overseen the Fairbanks Ranch project since its inception, greeted Watt's plane and led a tour of the property, where the average home is larger than 6,000 square feet and--as he put it--"probably a dozen exceed 10,000 square feet."

The only house built by Watt was a 9,000-square-foot rendition of a home designed, but never built, by the late architect Wallace Neff for Fairbanks and Pickford.

Watt--who owns homes in Beverly Hills, Palm Springs and San Clemente--was thinking of living in the Fairbanks Ranch house he built, but wound up selling it the day after an opening party to people from Dallas who still use it as a second home.

Designed Guest House

Neff also designed a 2,000-square-foot guest house, which was built for Fairbanks. After Watt bought the property, the guest house was renovated and sold to former President Richard M. Nixon's chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, who has since sold it.

There have been a few other resales at Fairbanks Ranch, and there are some completed homes on the market priced from $890,000 to $3.2 million.

Builders other than Watt have built houses on speculation as well as for clients and themselves. Walt Wolf, a 35-year-old bachelor and head of Wolf Industries, constructed a 13,500-square-foot home with a lake stocked with bass because he like to fish. The home also has a waterfall, swimming pool, tennis court and guest house.

Another builder built a seven-bedroom home for himself and his family with an entertainment room reached by stairs outlined by Tivoli-style lights. There is a movie screen in the room and a grand piano on its own level.

Plenty of Recreation

If that's not entertainment enough, another house is being built with a bowling alley in the basement.

Recreationally, there is plenty to do, anyway, at Fairbanks Ranch, where there are 250 acres of open space, pedal boats and sailboats on two man-made lakes, a 2 1/2-mile jogging track along a stream, a library in a pump house constructed by Fairbanks as part of a system to irrigate his eucalyptus and orange groves, a lakeside clubhouse, equestrian trails, a 17-acre equestrian facility and a golf course and country club built by Watt just outside the community's security-guarded gates in time to be used for the 1984 Olympic Equestrian Event.

Watt also built a 58,000-square-foot office and retail center adjacent to the 1,237-acre Fairbanks Ranch along a road constructed by Watt on 785 acres purchased from a family entity owned by the late comedian Danny Kaye.

Watt also developed the retail center, golf course, country club and 234 luxury condominiums on this property, known as the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club. Six more condos are nearing completion at prices from $300,000 to $460,000, and 100 remain to be built.

'Making a Commitment'

"We put up Fairbanks Village Plaza (the retail center) early in the development to show that we were making a commitment," Watt said.

The center also has Watt's personal touch: a bell tower that occasionally plays the USC fight song.

Watt, a big booster and trustee of USC, attended UCLA but has an honorary doctorate of law degree from that rival school. Despite the prestigious-sounding credential, Watt is not above hard work, which--as the youngest of six children--he's known since he was 11, when his father, a set builder in the film industry, died.

Watt is 68 but still gets up at 4 a.m. to be in the office by 6 or 6:30, says his longtime friend and self-proclaimed "Man Friday," O. J. (Benny) Fontana, who is 76. Watt's company has 16 subsidiaries and is involved in 54 real estate projects from Sacramento to Chula Vista.

Joint Venture

Watt's dedication is reflected at Fairbanks Ranch. "I walked every one of the 618 lots there probably 20 times," he reminisced. "I wanted to know about the views so we could put premiums (prices) on the lots, and I wanted to know how much building area there would be."

As a precaution, Watt Industries joined with Home Capital Development Group, a subsidiary of Home Federal Savings, in a joint venture to develop the property, spending about $46 million before the first lot closed escrow in November, 1980. Davis remembers selling the first lots out of jeeps equipped with snake-bite kits.

Watt had to construct roads and a sewage treatment plant while also making site improvements to the land, which had been neglected for more than 40 years. The land was graded, 85,000 trees were planted, and such services as cable television and natural gas were installed.

Watt doesn't believe in gambling on real estate unless the odds are in his favor.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World