When Walt Disney turned his eyes to Orange County as a place to build his first amusement park in 1955, even he didn't dream that his company would one day become part of a team that would develop a 5,000-acre resort and residential community a few miles away.
People thought Disney was crazy enough to buy 76 acres in Anaheim, where there was little in those days except orange groves. What would they have thought if he had also been interested in the 5,000-acre property, now known as Coto de Caza, which was even more rural and remote?
In 1769, it was a seven-day march from San Diego, when a Franciscan priest, exploring California with the Portola expedition, described the 5,000-acre site as a "beautiful valley, surrounded by low hills, deep with rich grass burnished by the sun."
Today, it's a 90-minute, 75-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles or 25 miles south of John Wayne Airport and a "hillside away," as developers phrase it, just east of California's newest town, Rancho Santa Margarita.
Rugged Saddleback Mountains
Despite its proximity to these burgeoning areas, the site that the Walt Disney Co. is helping to develop, is still much as the Franciscan father portrayed it. It's rolling hills, still dotted with oaks, are nestled against the rugged Saddleback Mountains and Cleveland National Forest, with only a small fraction of its acreage developed.
It's not far from the Marine Air Corps Station in El Toro, either, but it's "city close and country quiet," Moe Tidemanis says.
Tidemanis is project manager with Chevron Land & Development Co., which is joint venturing the development with Arvida Disney, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co., and City Federal Savings & Loan. Arvida Disney, managing partner of the development, has a 40% interest; Chevron has a 40% interest, and City Federal Savings has a 20% interest.
"Disney bought us in June, 1984," John C. Yelverton, president of Coto de Caza Development Co. (the joint-venture development firm), said of Arvida, which developed communities in Florida and Georgia before starting to develop the California site.
Partners Since 1984
"Arvida inherited Coto de Caza in 1980 from the Great Southwest Corp. (now known as GSC/Six Flags Corp.), which was part of Penn Central. Arvida was part of Penn Central then too."
Arvida Disney, Chevron and City Federal Savings & Loan have been partners in developing Coto de Caza since August, 1984, but it took this long to get necessary access roads built and plans and permits processed for construction on the 15-year project to begin.
"We closed escrow on a parcel to J. M. Peters (a home-building firm) in late April, and we will close two or three others (to home builders) in the next 60 days," Tidemanis said.
"We also closed two sales last fall to Douglas Gfeller, and he will be the first builder to start construction in our project when he begins work on some attached units along the golf course this summer."
Golf Course Planted
The golf course is already planted. "And the grass is coming up," Yelverton said. Designed by Robert Trent Jones, the 18-hole course is expected to be playable by the end of this year.
By the time the developers are finished, there will be two golf courses "down the length of the valley, which is about six miles," Tidemanis said.
There will be a 500-acre regional park, which already has been dedicated. And there will be about 6,400 homes, Tidemanis estimated, including the 400 lots, many with homes, that have been sold there through the years.
Among these are 75 ranchettes, parcels one to six acres in size. Homes on 19 of these have been built, along with houses on some 6,000-square-foot lots. "We've also sold several 10,000-square-foot lots (for custom homes)," Tidemanis explained.
Building Huge Mansion
The joint-venture team also sold more than 130 acres to William Lyon, a major Southland home builder who bought the property for himself. "He is building a huge, Southern mansion--all brick, which I'm told he'll paint white," Tidemanis said. He estimated the size of the home at 20,000 square feet, including a barn for Lyon's car collection.
Most of the new homes at Coto de Caza won't be as expensive to build as Lyon's, of course, but they will be "a little pricey" in contrast with new homes in nearby communities, Yelverton said, estimating that Coto de Caza condominiums will average $155,000 and detached residences will range from $175,000 to $350,000.
One reason he suggested for the higher price: "It's rare to see so much acreage in Southern California behind gates."
Coto de Caza will also offer more recreational amenities than many communities. The name has already become synonymous with sports and resort activities through its Vic Braden Tennis College and Coto Research and Conference Centers.
Equestrian, Hunting Resort
All opened in the 1970s, except the Coto Research Center, which has been there for about five years.