ANTHONY R. MOISO : Slow-Growth Initiative Not the Answer, Developer Says

Times Staff Writer

Anthony R. Moiso presides over a piece of land that stretches for 16 miles, a gigantic piece of real estate that lies squarely in the southward path of Orange County's phenomenal growth. Moiso can see a wide swatch of that land--rolling green hills on which cattle graze--through the big windows in his office. On the wooden walls are a framed picture of a cowboy roping a steer and Western paraphernalia.

Yet Moiso is no rancher, despite the Western trappings. He is a developer. History and luck dropped an unbelievable 50,000 acres in one of the nation's fastest-growing areas into his family's lap, and the family company, the Santa Margarita Co., now controls the second-largest private landholding in the county, even after selling more than 10,000 acres.

Only the Irvine Co.--which also started as a Spanish land grant and then became a family ranch--owns more Orange County land.

The O'Neill family--Moiso is the nephew of family patriarch and company Chairman Richard J. O'Neill--began developing the land from cattle ranch to subdivision only in the 1960s, and then the family only developed a fraction of its holdings. Nevertheless, the result was a new city: Mission Viejo, a much admired planned community that just gained cityhood and is still growing. It now has a population of 68,500.

In 1972, the family sold its interest in the project to partner Philip Morris Cos., which makes Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer. A subsidiary of the tobacco company continues to develop the remaining land in Mission Viejo.

Shortly afterward, Moiso and other family members began planning a new development on a scale equally as large.

The plans include another new town, Rancho Santa Margarita, which is now under development on 5,000 acres. When finished, the town will have 50,000 residents, its own downtown and industrial parks. After that, the company is considering what Moiso says would be a huge business park nearby. The plans are big enough to take the land-rich company well into the 21st Century to complete.

Many of the 15,000 acres slated for development are years away from the backhoe and the dump truck, and some of the land will not see construction in Moiso's lifetime. Still, what has been done so far to the arid hills and valleys would probably amaze Richard O'Neill Sr., a butcher from San Francisco who bought 233,000 acres of empty land in Orange and San Diego counties with a partner in 1882. Although the landholding has shrunk, the family has remained in control since.

But things have changed since the 1960s, when Mission Viejo was begun. Subdivisions and office parks have proliferated and spread through the valleys of southern Orange County, the result of an almost frantic construction boom. With the houses and the offices and the factories has come traffic--snarled, creeping, frustrating traffic that nobody seems quite sure how to untangle.

Local governments are pickier about zoning and building permits now. But not picky enough, according to the backers of a countywide initiative that would require developers to widen roads or otherwise improve traffic in congested areas before they could build. The local building industry says it would bring construction--and the county's economy--to a screeching halt.

The initiative would affect only projects in the unincorporated areas of the county, and Rancho Santa Margarita lies entirely in an unincorporated area. By virtue of the company's huge landholdings and its high stake in the outcome of the growth debate, affable Tony Moiso has been thrust--one senses, somewhat unwillingly--into a role as one of the spokesmen for the county's large and powerful community of developers.

He professes bewilderment at what several polls say is widespread public support for the initiative, which could make it onto the ballot this year. He points to the 25,000 acres the Santa Margarita Co. has set aside permanently and which he says it has no plans to develop at any time in the future.

Yet this is also the company that--like several other large developers--has already angered the slow-growth movement by asking county government for permission to build thousands of houses on its land in return for spending millions of dollars on road construction in the southern part of Orange County.

In effect, say the slow-growth advocates, the developers are trying to get around the intent of the initiative. In return, they're building roads that they would eventually have been required to build anyway, initiative backers say.

Moiso, who looks younger than his 48 years, lives in Laguna Beach but commutes to a long, low-slung office in a building that looks like a big ranch house. The house is set on a hill outside downtown San Juan Capistrano, and country music plays softly in the spacious living room that serves as the lobby while a fire dies down to embers in the massive stone fireplace.

Moiso is married and has four daughters. His salary is about $200,000. Privately held, Santa Margarita Co. discloses no information on revenues or profits.

In this interview with Times staff writer Michael Flagg, Moiso talks about the slow-growth initiative, the county's traffic problem and the direction of the Santa Margarita Co. into the 21st Century.

Q: We might as well start with the $64 question. Obviously you're opposed to the slow-growth initiative. But given the frustration with traffic in this county, and the fact many people seem to blame the traffic problem on developers, how are you going to bring them around to your point of view?

A: I think that anybody who actually reads the initiative line by line and studies it and understands its impact and its implications would also be opposed to it.

Orange County has 27 cities, with Mission Viejo, and the unincorporated areas, and to solve the traffic problem . . . we may need an initiative. But not this one.

This one doesn't provide any solutions. Orange County is complex. You know, it's unbelievable that a guy in Brea can collect signatures in the city of Brea that affect the unincorporated areas of the county at this end, although where he lives is way at the other end of Orange County.

Q: So how are you getting your point across to people?

A: I and many others are participating in the building industry outreach program that was started to try to help educate--not only the building industry--but also business and the general population of Orange County as to what are the real solutions.

Those solutions to the traffic problem are not to shut down the building of homes. It's to continue the building of homes (and using developer fees charged by local governments to fund road construction). If you take the builder out of the equation, there's no one left. There's no one to solve the problem.

Q: You sound like you might be willing to reach an accommodation with the slow-growth proponents. Are you?

A: I have said before and I will continue to say that Moiso and the Santa Margarita Co. and the Rancho Mission Viejo are advocates of reasonable, well-planned, managed, monitored, roads-first building and growth.

I can't believe that reasonable people can't all sit down, acknowledge the challenge that we have and work together.

Q: What are you proposing as your own solution to the traffic problem?

A: Something like the Foothill Circulation Phasing Plan. That's 100 square miles, 11 major landowners, 40 intersections, 133 lane miles where we have identified problems like roads that need to be expanded or that need to be built, intersections that need to be improved. It's going to cost $235 million, our share is $85 million, and we're going to build it. We've identified the problem, we've identified the funding source and we're off to do it.

What we need in this county is a similar program for the whole county, not just the unincorporated areas, but the 27 municipalities as well.

Q: In return for building those roads, you're asking the county for permission up front to build a lot of houses. So are other developers under similar development agreements awaiting approval from county government. How do you respond to the charge that these agreements are merely a way for developers to get around the initiative?

A: How in the world am I going to go out and spend $85 million on roadways and not know whether we're ever going to get to build a home out there? The bond underwriters, they're not going to go out and sell bonds to build these roads unless they know there's a document somewhere that says we're going to be able to go ahead and build. It doesn't make any sense unless you have a development agreement.

Our development agreement with the county is not designed to get around any initiative. We have been working on the agreement, on this roads-first program of development, for three or four years, long before this initiative drive started. We're just trying to get a document that allows us the luxury of knowing we can go out and spend this money to make it happen.

Q: As a person who obviously has a great feeling of affection for the land, whose family has long been connected to the land, how do you feel about seeing these hills and valleys covered with housing tracts and roads and freeways?

A: I've been here all my life. There was a time when there was no one living in what's now known as the Saddleback Valley. There was no Mission Viejo. There was no Laguna Niguel, no Laguna Hills, no El Toro as we know it. There was no Newport Beach as we know it.

And that was probably a wonderful way of life, but there weren't very many people here. I believe that Orange County is as good as it gets. It provides many, many people--many more than 25 years ago--with a place to live, to raise their families, to work, to recreate, I mean, it's unbelievable. This is real good here, right?

So how do I feel about it? I think it's better. If you take the community of Mission Viejo, we started Mission Viejo 25 years ago, in 1963. It's still not done. It's 10,000 acres. We've got 40,000 acres here, it's going to take a century if we were to build it out. So if there's a fear that these hills that you see are going to be completely developed, I'd say it's unfounded. It's just not true.

I've given talks about how we'll always have a cow herd here, and we will: There'll always be cows grazing on those hills.

Q: It's said that Orange County is in a very unusual position because so much of its land is owned by large landowners, probably more than in any suburban area in the country. You and the Irvine Co. together own nearly 110,000 acres. What are your relations with the Irvine Co. like now? How do you see yourself in relation to them?

A: The ownership and the leadership in the Irvine Co. are not only competition, but also friends. We're surely a lot smaller than the Irvine Co. We might have two-thirds as much land, and they're 20 to 30 years ahead of us.

I think we have a lot of common challenges because of the business that we're in. The Irvine Co. and us and others are perceived--I don't know if we are--but perceived to be the leaders of this industry, and we have an unbelievable responsibility in the burden that we share to leave something behind that's better than it was when we started.

Q: Do you talk to (Irvine Co. Chairman) Donald Bren a lot?

A: No. Donald came in 1963 and he was the first president of Mission Viejo Co., and that's a long time ago and I was close to him then, when we started. I see him now, but I don't talk to him perhaps as much as people might figure I would.

Q: You've said the first 1,500 houses sold in Rancho Santa Margarita were inexpensive enough to have sold mostly to first-time home buyers. How do you manage to keep prices low and make a profit, and why would you want to when everybody else is building and selling expensive houses?

A: When we went into this, my goal was to do Mission Viejo over again. And so we had a lot of problems to solve, water, sewer, access roads, finding money, the right talent and so on.

But then we had to identify a segment of the market. And the opportunity really was to provide a place to live for those families who were precluded from living and working in Orange County because of the price of homes.

Everybody's familiar with the great Inland Empire and Corona, Riverside and all that stuff. Well the reason why all that exists is because the land was cheaper out there, so people could live out there. But the employment was still here, so people had to drive back for their jobs, and that's why you have the problem of coming in on the freeway two hours every day.

The second reason we aimed at that market was because no one was doing it at the time. Now the world's kind of changed a little bit, and a lot of people are trying it.

Q: Getting back to the initiative, do you think it will pass?

A: I really have confidence that when someone analyzes this, they'll reject it. I read various surveys that tend to indicate people are fed up with traffic. But what I see indicates that while they're concerned about the traffic, they really wouldn't vote for a complete shutdown in construction because their jobs would be in jeopardy.

I think you cannot discount the fact that there's a lot of dissatisfaction, and I think a lot of people are going to be attracted to the initiative whether it's a good initiative or not. The idea that if you just sign here and all the traffic will go away is pretty enticing. I'd sign it if all the traffic would go away, but it's not true.

I don't know how it will go, I just really don't know right now.

Q: You say the initiative is vague and confusing. If it passes, how do you think it will it affect the Santa Margarita Co.?

A: I don't know the answer. Some of the backers indicated to us privately and publicly that Rancho Santa Margarita meets the intent of what they're trying to accomplish. Roads first, well thought out development. But I'm not so sure, and I'm concerned about it. Q: Given the kind of intense development that's gone on in the last two decades or so, and what's ahead, what is the county going to look like in the year 2000?

A: The amazing thing is that I used to think the year 2000 was a long way away, but it's only 12 years. I was born in 1939, and I remember thinking at the turn of the century I'd be 61 and thinking that was never going to happen.

When we look back from then, we will have solved the problems. I am optimistic that reasonable people can solve these problems. It's not going to be easy.

I think those who are worried that the hills will be covered with houses will be pleasantly surprised, because that won't be the case.

It will be fine.

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