A Landmark Family : The O’Neill-Moiso Saga Begins a New Chapter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The merger announced Wednesday by Santa Margarita Co. marks a milestone in the long, colorful history of one of Orange County’s pioneer families.

The company said Wednesday that it will join forces with apartment management giant Western National Group to form one of the state’s biggest real estate concerns. But the O’Neill-Moiso family that founded Santa Margarita had made its name known long before that.

Patriarch Richard O’Neill, with partner James Flood, purchased two huge tracts of Southern California ranchland in 1882. That property, divided many times over the years, originally included much of south Orange County and north San Diego County, as far south as Oceanside.

The government bought a large tract to build Camp Pendleton during World War II. One grandson, Richard J. O’Neill, founded Mission Viejo in the 1960s on another parcel.

O’Neill, 71, becomes the chairman of the new company, the same position he has held in Santa Margarita Co.

Active in the Democratic Party and a onetime state chairman, O’Neill also owns the historic El Adobe Restaurant in San Juan Capistrano and was a major contributor to the building fund for the South Coast Repertory playhouse in Costa Mesa.

The president of Santa Margarita Co. is Anthony R. Moiso, a great-grandson of the founder.

Moiso, 55, is a seventh-generation Californian who is a longtime associate of Sheriff Brad Gates and serves on the Sheriff’s Advisory Council. He, like O’Neill, is involved in a number of charitable organizations, including the Boy Scouts and the Heart of Jesus Retreat Center in Santa Ana.

Despite his active role in his company’s real estate development activities over the years, he has stayed close to the ranch’s roots by participating in the annual El Viaj Portola, a horseback riding event that raises money for charity. He is also a member of the California Cattleman’s Assn.

Moiso, a Stanford graduate and military veteran, declined to be interviewed about himself or his company Wednesday. He issued a brief statement saying that he thinks the venture with Western National will be a success and expressing faith in his partners.

In the past, he has expressed an abiding appreciation for Orange County, its people and its lifestyle.

“I believe Orange County is as good as it gets,” he said in a 1988 interview. “It provides many, many people . . . with a place to live, to raise their families, to work, to recreate. I mean, it’s unbelievable. This is real good here, right?”

“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,” he said.

“And that was a pretty wonderful way of life.”

* ‘A CLASS ACT’

Analysts laud Western National’s leadership, foresight. D7

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Real Estate Mega-Mix

The merger of Santa Margarita Co. and Western National Group would create a huge real estate concern encompassing community and commercial real estate development and apartment property investment, management and development.

Merger at a Glance

The joining of two of Orange County’s largest real estate operations follows by a few months the merger of the companies’ home building operations to form San Juan Group Inc.

Santa Margarita Co.

* Headquarters: San Juan Capistrano

* Chief Executive Officer: Anthony R. Moiso

* Employees: 100

* Businesses: Land management, cattle ranching and real estate development

* Major holdings: 46,000 acres; 5,000-acre community of Rancho Santa Margarita on the company’s 40,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo property

Western National Group

* Headquarters: Orange

* Managing Partner: Michael K. Hayde

* Employees: 940 nationwide

* Businesses: Management, development and construction of multifamily housing

* Major holdings: Manages 27,000 multifamily units; in past 30 years has built more than 15,000 apartments and 2,500 homes or home sites

Real Estate Holdings

Western National Group owns apartments in five Southern California counties and manages others across the nation. A summary of its Southern California operations:

Apartment Units by City

Los Angeles County

Long Beach: 200

Orange County

Anaheim: 2,137

Brea: 1,474

Buena Park: 184

Costa Mesa: 37

Fullerton: 314

Garden Grove: 116

Huntington Beach: 233

La Habra: 82

Lake Forest: 1,258

Mission Viejo: 250

Orange: 104

Placentia: 476

Rancho Santa Margarita: 500

Santa Ana: 563

Stanton: 149

Tustin: 318

Westminster: 128

Riverside, San Bernardino counties

Ontario: 404

Riverside: 140

Upland: 758

San Diego County

La Jolla: 296

Ventura County

Oxnard: 368

Sources: Company Intelligence; Wire reports. Researched by ADAM S. BAUMAN and JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times