RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA : A 'Wilderness' Housing Development Opens for Business

Las Flores, a new community officially opening this weekend, bills itself as a community surrounded by wilderness, so much so that each home buyer is handed a pamphlet on how to live in harmony with nature.

Hiking and biking paths weave through the 1,000-acre subdivision, connecting directly to more than a dozen miles of wilderness trails in adjoining O'Neill Regional Park.

That setting, Santa Margarita Co. officials say, is part of the attraction of the development, which will eventually have 2,500 homes, making it one of the largest projects in South Orange County in recent years.

Concern with preserving that wilderness, however, caused the project to be delayed for two years by environmentalists who fought court battles to make sure that wildlife was protected.

Owners are now moving into the first 350 homes, which company officials say blend with nature. Homes are painted in muted earth tones such as brown, terra-cotta and beige. Open space between homes and the regional park act as buffers.

For Pete DeSimone, a local environmentalist who runs an Audobon Society wilderness preserve nearby, using nature as a selling tool for a housing tract bears a heavy irony.

"People want to have security and safety and yet live in a rural area," DeSimone said. "You can't have it both ways. You can't pack in rows of housing and have that kind of rural feeling."

Company officials say that what counts is giving people what they want. And according to building industry surveys, home buyers want to feel that they are getting away from the bustle of the city.

Can Las Flores offer them that?

"We'll find out this weekend," said Matt Osgood, senior vice president of development.

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