An island of calm amid the bustle of the O.C.

Marshutz is a freelancer writer.

Compared with the high-density residential developments surrounding it, Laguna Hills’ Nellie Gail Ranch is an anomaly. A stone’s throw from major freeways and a few miles from the ocean, employment and shopping centers, Nellie Gail offers its residents a combination of an equestrian-themed tract and huge custom homes spread across 1,350 bucolic acres.

Early days

Nellie Gail Ranch was named after successful rancher Lewis Moulton’s wife. Moulton arrived in Southern California in 1874 via Boston and Chicago and learned the sheepherding business as an Irvine Ranch hand.

Gradually, Moulton leased some grazing land and then purchased various portions of Rancho Niguel that Don Juan Avila had lost after California came under U.S. rule. Moulton’s land holdings totaled 22,000 acres by 1895, and the spread was renamed the Moulton-Niguel Ranch.


A little more than a decade later, Moulton formed a partnership with Jean Pierre Daguerre, another successful sheepherder. They acquired more land (adding cattle and raising barley and beans) until their holdings doubled those of the original Rancho Niguel. The northern lands retained by the Moulton family eventually became Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills, Leisure World, Laguna Woods and Nellie Gail Ranch.

After Moulton died in 1938, Nellie Gail and family members managed the property until it was broken up and subdivided in the 1960s.

How it grew

Presley of Southern California, a subsidiary of the Presley Cos., started developing Nellie Gail in the mid-1970s. (William Lyon Homes has since acquired Presley.)

“Back then, Nellie Gail was a very small community,” said Lloyd Gass, principal of Lloyd W. Gass & Associates, Prudential California Realty. “It was considered the Beverly Hills of Orange County. Hundreds of cars would drive through on the weekends and gawk at the custom homes. At the time, it was the only place around that had really high-end custom homes.”

The migration to southern Orange County was taking hold. People from the greater Los Angeles area as well as northern Orange County were looking for cheaper land, more space and new schools, Gass said. “It was the exciting new area to move to.”

Inside story

“Nellie Gail is really known for its lots; the smallest is about 12,000 square feet,” said Ron Maddux, an agent with Lloyd W. Gass & Associates. “Then it jumps to 30,000 square feet and then to 4 and 5 acres.”


Elaine Randall, who moved to Nellie Gail 15 years ago, agrees that the area’s big draw is the combination of huge lots, 20 miles of equestrian trails and open space. “I don’t ride horses, but I walk my dogs on the trails all the time,” she said. “Within a half-mile of my house, there are two parks. Many of the homes sit on an acre of land, which is what I was used to growing up in Michigan.”

Good and bad

Nellie Gail has attracted its share of high rollers looking for space and privacy. Perhaps the most nefarious was Broadcom Corp.’s Henry T. Nicholas III, who rankled neighbors a few years ago with his parties and no-permit-needed remodeling philosophy regarding his 15,000-square-foot, red-roofed hillside mansion.

Housing stock

Since the beginning of the year, there have been more than two dozen homes on the market, ranging from almost $1.3 million for a tract home to more than $6 million, with three sales above $2 million, according to Maddux. Recently, there were 16 active listings at or above $2 million. The lowest-priced custom home is listed for just less than $1.6 million.

The lowest-priced sale this year was a 2,580-square-foot, split-level four-bedroom tract home with a three-car garage, which sold for $950,000, Maddux said.

There have been only a couple of foreclosures, and short sales are few and far between, he added.

Report card

The Saddleback Valley Unified School District serves Nellie Gail Ranch students. Valencia Elementary scored 933 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2008 Academic Performance Index Growth Report. Students can move on to La Paz Intermediate School, which scored 872, and to Laguna Hills High School, which scored 848.




Sources: “Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II” edited by Rob Kling, Spencer Olin and Mark Poster; “A Hundred Years of Yesterdays, A Centennial History of the People of Orange County and Their Communities”; www.cde; www.ocrealestate;