Tejon Ranch has long been the site of livestock, farming and oil and mining operations, but on its 150th birthday this month the company that owns the historic property has dreams of the future: residential real estate.
The Tejon Ranch Co., one of the state's largest landowners, envisions a master-planned community on at least part of its vast 270,000-acre spread that straddles the border between Kern and Los Angeles counties just north of here. Although the plans are only a glint in a developer's eye, company President Jack Hunt said there lies potential for "a special living environment" in an area the size of the city of Los Angeles.
"We're looking for a planning vision that will go out well beyond any of our lifetimes," Hunt said.
The company says it worked to develop cordial relationships with some local environmentalists, groups that could smooth or block the path toward approval of a master-planned community.
"We think that Tejon will eventually donate a great deal of that land for open space and for the public good," said Mary Griffin, president of the local chapter of the Audubon Society. "They have had a long history of cooperating with the Audubon Society and they've been very nice to our chapter."
Tejon Ranch's long-range plans are still in the conception stage and have not drawn the intense public scrutiny that usually accompanies large developments. But some recent housing projects in the undeveloped region have incurred protests from community groups that are concerned about traffic, water and the environment.
(Times Mirror Co., parent company of the Los Angeles Times, controls more than 32% of Tejon Ranch's stock.)
In earlier times, the Tejon Pass, also known as the Grapevine, was the most-used link between the southern and northern parts of the state. During the Gold Rush, thousands used the pass to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The state's largest military base at the time, Ft. Tejon, was built there in 1854 and had a force of about 400 men.
In 1843, the Mexican government issued three land grants which, along with a fourth issued in 1846, make up the present-day Tejon Ranch. In 1855, Edward Fitzgerald Beale began consolidating the land grants, said Larry Jay Martin, author of "Rush to Destiny," a biographical novel about Beale.
"I'm frankly surprised that it hasn't grown and become more of an urban area than it has," Martin said. "They kept it as a ranch when they could have done other things, like Los Angeles."
The Tejon Pass was also the site of the first wagon road from the south to the north. Now, more than 50,000 cars pass through the area every day on Interstate 5. It is also the site of the Ft. Tejon State Historic Park.
Best known in recent times as one of the sites for the 1991 yellow umbrellas project by the environmental artist Christo, Tejon Ranch's major activities are raising livestock and farming.
The company is home to about 14,000 head of beef cattle and it breeds quarter horses for competition. Crops include 1,140 acres of wine grapes, 890 acres of almonds, 430 acres of pistachios and 380 acres of walnuts.
Although Hunt expressed optimism for the ranch's future as a master-planned community, the market has been less enthusiastic, with Tejon Ranch stock reaching a low for the year of $13.63 last week, less than a third of its 1990 high of $49.
Hunt shrugs off the market pessimism, attributing it to a cyclical decline in California real estate, a cycle he says will eventually improve.
"The perception about California real estate is not very good," Hunt said. "We think it will come back, but we can't say when that will be. A lot of people are scratching their heads about the California economy right now."
It could be a couple of decades before houses are built on Tejon Ranch, real estate analysts said.
"I don't think they'll even try for at least 15 or 20 years," said William Fulton, publisher of the Ventura-based California Planning & Development Report. "They're just going to sit there and wait so that someday when the market dynamics come to them, they'll make an application to build."
Tejon Ranch plans on celebrating its birthday Saturday with a benefit for the Ft. Tejon State Historic Park and the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum. The fund-raiser, to be held at the state park, will include Western entertainment, horse demonstrations and historic displays.