THE NEW PIONEERS : Latest Settlers Stake Claims : Growth: Those flocking to one of the county's final frontiers are searching for the same things as those who originally came here: open space, new homes--a bit of 'suburban utopia.'


"We find ourselves suddenly threatened by hordes of Yankee immigrants . . . whose progress we cannot arrest."

--Pio Pico, California's last Mexican governor before American conquest in 1846.

They began lining up near the sales offices days--even weeks--before new housing phases went on sale. Hundreds of them, camping out in tents, sleeping bags and motor homes, waiting for the chance to buy into a new community literally being built from the ground up.

Like latter-day Forty-Niners, they were staking their claims on a piece of a California dream-in-the-making: Rancho Santa Margarita, in 1986 Orange County's newest master-planned community.

Lured by home prices ranging from $55,000 to $200,000 and the promise of new schools, shops and businesses, they descended upon this burgeoning community nestled between the hills of Mission Viejo and the landmark Saddleback peaks looming up behind the red-tiled roofs like a painted Hollywood backdrop.

Rancho Santa Margarita was the latest incarnation of the good life, Orange County style: Boating on the manufactured lake, jogging and bicycling on scenic paths. Tennis, swimming, golf, fishing.

Nearly eight years after the first suburban settlers moved in, Rancho Santa Margarita continues to promote itself as a "place where life is meant to be enjoyed" and potential homeowners still camp out for new homes now priced from $90,000 to more than $300,000.

Residents of this "urban village" and those of the adjoining residential developments that have sprung up in the foothills of South County are riding the wave of development in one of the county's final frontiers.

"They are basically the suburbs of suburbs," says UC Irvine urban sociologist Mark Baldassare. "First we had residents fleeing the urban areas of Los Angeles for Orange County. Later on we had the movement of people from north to south Orange County, and today we're seeing residents throughout what has become a very urban Orange County seeking the new suburbs in the southern foothills of Orange County."

Residential development in these remote hill areas is part of the gradual but inevitable shift southward in the wake of the tidal wave of growth that swept over Orange County in the 1950s.

From the postwar bedroom communities of North County, which transformed what had essentially been an agricultural county with separate and distinct communities into a suburban sprawl, the county has evolved into a multi-centered metropolitan region that requires a new definition.

Call it postsuburban Orange County.

"No other conceptual alternative--rural, urban or suburban--accurately describes the nature of settlement space in Orange County," says Spencer Olin, a professor of history at UC Irvine and co-author of "Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II."

Olin says the "urban village" concept of 5,000-acre Rancho Santa Margarita--which eventually will enable even more residents the option of living and working in the same community--is consistent with the overall trend in Orange County.

Indeed, the notion of Orange County as a "bedroom community" for people working in Los Angeles is as outmoded as white gravel rooftops and tail fins.

"Statistics indicate a vast majority of residents in Orange County now work in Orange County, which distinguishes the county today from what it was in the '60s," Olin says.

In their 1991 book, Olin and his co-authors identify 21 other counties with characteristics similar to Orange County, ranging from California's Santa Clara County to Suffolk County in New York.

"More and more metropolitan regions in America--and perhaps western Europe as well--will look and act like Orange County in the future," Olin says. "They are sprawling, multi-centered regions which, while lacking an urban core, nonetheless possess the economic vitality, technological dynamism and cultural diversity formerly associated only with major central cities."

Olin cites the Irvine Co.'s creation of Irvine--"a bold departure in community planning and building"--as a prototypal example of this "post-suburban spatial organization" that has been emulated by other development companies within the county.

Olin and his colleagues, UCI professors Rob Kling and Mark Poster, write that Irvine, "by design, has no downtown but is a deconcentrated mosaic of residential villages, small shopping centers and industrial parks."

The Irvine Co., according to Olin, successfully marketed this "dynamic post-suburban complex" as a "carefully planned, middle-class, suburban utopia," projecting images of "neatly landscaped communities, convivial village life, freedom from crime and congestion, upscale consumer conveniences, and other pleasant amenities"--all of which other developers adopted in their marketing strategies.

The vision of a utopian lifestyle has been a common theme in Orange County's growth and development since the boom of the 1880s.

Just as the arrival of freeways would help spur unprecedented development in Orange County nearly a century later, the arrival of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads in the late 1870s paved the way for the development of Fullerton, Buena Park, Villa Park, Aliso City (now Lake Forest) and Capistrano Beach.

One of the reasons the 1880s was such a predominant and successful period of development can be credited to a concept that would reach an art form in the 20th Century: marketing.

"Orange County," says historian Pamela Hallan-Gibson, "was somewhat of a promoter's paradise in the boom of the 1880s."

Hallan-Gibson, author of "The Golden Promise: An Illustrated History of Orange County," says there were many reasons for that: "Orange County had a good agricultural economy, had fairly secure water supplies thanks to wells, a mild climate and a real active group of supporters."

Indeed, a promotional brochure published by the Santa Ana Valley Immigration Assn. in 1885 extolled the virtues of the Santa Ana Valley, "where so lately the wildflowers bloomed and died and bloomed again in undisturbed luxuriance, tasteful and often elegant homes are springing up, surrounded by orchards and vineyards, which promise rich returns in the future."

Observes Hallan-Gibson with a laugh: "Now doesn't that just make you want to put down your snow shovel and come out?"

The extension of the Pacific Electric Red Cars into Orange County from Los Angeles after the turn of the century spurred another boom as thousands of tourists and vacationing Angelenos were given a taste of Orange County.

"It really made a lot of people aware of Orange County who hadn't really been in the past," says Hallan-Gibson. And everywhere the Red Cars went, she says, "land values went up and people started subdividing."

The completion of Pacific Coast Highway in the late 1920s resulted in residential developments in San Clemente and Dana Point. The grand opening of the sale of land in Dana Point in 1924 drew a crowd of thousands who came to hear a band concert, eat a free barbecue and listen to a pitch to buy 60-by-100-foot lots for $1,000.

The Depression curtailed further development in the county, but World War II set the stage for the biggest boom of them all.

Many of the thousands of servicemen who passed through the Santa Ana Army Air Base, the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and a handful of other military installations during the war had succumbed to the allure of the county's mild climate and the scent of orange blossoms in the air.

As returning veterans looking for homes, jobs and prospects, they viewed Orange County as a golden opportunity for creating better lives for themselves and their families. As Hallan-Gibson writes in "The Golden Promise": "A human tsunami swept over Orange County in the 1950s, taking much of the old culture with it."

Between 1950 and 1960, the county's population would swell from 220,000 to 704,000. In 1956 alone, according to Hallan-Gibson, the population jumped 34%.

The county's growth--residential as well as industrial--was so overwhelming by the mid-'60s that a writer for Orange County Illustrated was prompted to ponder: "Are we to destroy the very things we sought?"

Although the breakup of the old ranchos on former Mexican land grants caused North County to begin developing a century earlier, much of remote South County had remained in private hands as ranches owned by the Irvine family, the O'Neill/Moiso family and others.

But such large-scale land ownership provided the opportunity to experiment in planned community design and development, beginning with the Irvine Co. in the early '60s and moving into the planned communities of Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Aliso Viejo and Foothill Ranch.

Says Steven Kellenberg, vice president of PBR, an Irvine-based community planning consulting firm: "Orange County does have a tradition at least since the early 1960s of quality planned community development. There is probably a higher concentration of planned communities in Orange County than in anywhere else in the United States."

Kellenberg, whose firm has supported the Santa Margarita Co. in its planning activities since the community was conceived in the early '80s, says Rancho Santa Margarita was designed with the idea of providing the best that planned communities had to offer: a balance between jobs and housing, the idea of an urban village in an open-space setting and a strong pedestrian orientation in terms of being able to bicycle and walk to community services, jobs, dining and entertainment, parks, day care and schools.

"I think the trends clearly are toward more pedestrian orientation in new and existing communities," says Kellenberg, who believes Orange County will continue to be a "laboratory for new community design concepts."

Unlike the '50s bedroom communities of North County, which "were oriented toward meeting the needs of a postwar society rapidly with very high housing production at a moderate cost," Kellenberg says, "we've moved past that in recent decades and we are looking for communities that are more supportive of the lifestyles of the residents, that are more user-friendly, that provide a stronger sense of place and are less automobile-dominated."

The planned community, he says, "provides the opportunity to reinvent the suburbs and, more than ever before, cities and counties with smaller-scale land ownership are now searching for ways to do that."

The Hills Are Alive . . . with Young, Upscale Professionals

Do people living in the southern suburbs differ from the rest of the county's residents? They do, in several ways. They are more likely to be upscale and educated, to work in professional/managerial jobs and to have higher incomes than the rest of the county. Foothill dwellers are more likely to be white, married with children, California-born, and to have come here before 1975 if they are foreign-born. Here's how those living in the three separate ZIP codes that comprise the southern foothills compare to the county as a whole:

Fun Facts Percentage of suburban commuters countywide who drive to work alone: 77% In the foothill communities: 84% Average commute countywide, in minutes: 25% Average from foothill communities: 36% Percentage of children 3 and older enrolled in private school countywide: 14% Percentage in foothill communities: 18% In the foothill communities: 9% Birth rate per 1,000 women, 15 and older, countywide: 1,643 Rate in the foothill communities: 1,232 Percentage of households countywide with five or more people: 15% ZIP Code 92610: Foothill Ranch

ZIP Code 92679: Portola Hills, Robinson Ranch, Coto de Caza and Dove Canyon

ZIP Code 92688: Rancho Santa Margarita

Orange County 92610 92679 Race and Ethnicity White 65% 74% 85% Latino 23% 7% 8% Asian 10% 16% 5% Black 2% 2% 1% American Indian * 1% 1% Other * 0 0 Age 17 and younger 25% 25% 32% 18-24 12% 9% 5% 25-44 36% 55% 47% 45-64 18% 9% 14% 65 and older 9% 2% 2% Median 31.5% 30.2% 31.7% Marital Status (15 and older) Married 51% 61% 75% Never married 29% 24% 16% Divorced 9% 11% 6% Widowed 5% 1% 1% Separated 2% 2% 1% Other 4% 1% 1% Language Spoken at Home(5 years and older) English 69% 80% 89% Spanish 19% 5% 5% Vietnamese 3% 5% 2% All others 9% 10% 4% Place of Birth California 42% 42% 55% Other U.S. 33% 41% 36% Outside U.S.* 1% 2% 1% Foreign 24% 15% 8% Foreign-Born Entry to U.S. 1974 and earlier 26% 28% 45% 1975 and later 74% 72% 55% Education (18 and older) Less than high school 21% 3% 4% High school graduate 21% 14% 13% College, no degree 26% 32% 31% Associate degree 8% 8% 9% Bachelor's degree 17% 31% 28% Graduate/professional degree 7% 12% 15% Household Types Married couple with children 28% 28% 50% Married couple, no children 30% 29% 34% Single male with children 1% 4% * Single male, no children 3% 1% 1% Single female with children 5% 2% 2% Single female, no children 4% 2% 1% Non-families 29% 34% 12% Homeowner Costs(As % of household income) 0-24% 55% 22% 25% 25-29% 12% 19% 14% 30-34% 9% 14% 23% 35% and more 24% 45% 38% Occupation (16 and older) Technical/sales/support 34% 41% 33% Manager/professional 31% 44% 48% Operator/fabricator/laborer 12% 4% 5% Service 11% 4% 7% Precision production/crafts 10% 7% 6% Farming/forestry/fishing 2% 0 1% Household Income Less than $25,000 23% 11% 5% $25,000-49,999 32% 32% 14% $50,000-74,999 23% 27% 23% $75,000-99,999 11% 15% 22% $100,000-149,999 7% 12% 22% $150,000 and more 4% 3% 14% Median $45,922 $55,363 $82,456

92688 Race and Ethnicity White 80% Latino 11% Asian 7% Black 2% American Indian * Other * Age 17 and younger 26% 18-24 10% 25-44 51% 45-64 11% 65 and older 2% Median 28.6% Marital Status (15 and older) Married 63% Never married 22% Divorced 11% Widowed 1% Separated 2% Other 1% Language Spoken at Home(5 years and older) English 81% Spanish 8% Vietnamese 2% All others 9% Place of Birth California 53% Other U.S. 32% Outside U.S.* 1% Foreign 14% Foreign-Born Entry to U.S. 1974 and earlier 39% 1975 and later 61% Education (18 and older) Less than high school 7% High school graduate 14% College, no degree 35% Associate degree 11% Bachelor's degree 26% Graduate/professional degree 7% Household Types Married couple with children 32% Married couple, no children 27% Single male with children 1% Single male, no children 1% Single female with children 5% Single female, no children 2% Non-families 32% Homeowner Costs(As % of household income) 0-24% 26% 25-29% 14% 30-34% 21% 35% and more 39% Occupation (16 and older) Technical/sales/support 40% Manager/professional 37% Operator/fabricator/laborer 6% Service 7% Precision production/crafts 9% Farming/forestry/fishing 1% Household Income Less than $25,000 12% $25,000-49,999 39% $50,000-74,999 35% $75,000-99,999 10% $100,000-149,999 3% $150,000 and more 1% Median $49,490

* Includes those born in American territories and in foreign countries to American parents

Source: U.S. Census

Researched by TOM REINKEN / Los Angeles Times

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