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ANTHONY R. MOISO : Slow-Growth Initiative Not the Answer, Developer Says

January 25, 1988|MICHAEL FLAGG | Times Staff Writer

Anthony R. Moiso presides over a piece of land that stretches for 16 miles, a gigantic piece of real estate that lies squarely in the southward path of Orange County's phenomenal growth. Moiso can see a wide swatch of that land--rolling green hills on which cattle graze--through the big windows in his office. On the wooden walls are a framed picture of a cowboy roping a steer and Western paraphernalia.

Yet Moiso is no rancher, despite the Western trappings. He is a developer. History and luck dropped an unbelievable 50,000 acres in one of the nation's fastest-growing areas into his family's lap, and the family company, the Santa Margarita Co., now controls the second-largest private landholding in the county, even after selling more than 10,000 acres.

Only the Irvine Co.--which also started as a Spanish land grant and then became a family ranch--owns more Orange County land.

The O'Neill family--Moiso is the nephew of family patriarch and company Chairman Richard J. O'Neill--began developing the land from cattle ranch to subdivision only in the 1960s, and then the family only developed a fraction of its holdings. Nevertheless, the result was a new city: Mission Viejo, a much admired planned community that just gained cityhood and is still growing. It now has a population of 68,500.

In 1972, the family sold its interest in the project to partner Philip Morris Cos., which makes Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer. A subsidiary of the tobacco company continues to develop the remaining land in Mission Viejo.

Shortly afterward, Moiso and other family members began planning a new development on a scale equally as large.

The plans include another new town, Rancho Santa Margarita, which is now under development on 5,000 acres. When finished, the town will have 50,000 residents, its own downtown and industrial parks. After that, the company is considering what Moiso says would be a huge business park nearby. The plans are big enough to take the land-rich company well into the 21st Century to complete.

Many of the 15,000 acres slated for development are years away from the backhoe and the dump truck, and some of the land will not see construction in Moiso's lifetime. Still, what has been done so far to the arid hills and valleys would probably amaze Richard O'Neill Sr., a butcher from San Francisco who bought 233,000 acres of empty land in Orange and San Diego counties with a partner in 1882. Although the landholding has shrunk, the family has remained in control since.

But things have changed since the 1960s, when Mission Viejo was begun. Subdivisions and office parks have proliferated and spread through the valleys of southern Orange County, the result of an almost frantic construction boom. With the houses and the offices and the factories has come traffic--snarled, creeping, frustrating traffic that nobody seems quite sure how to untangle.

Local governments are pickier about zoning and building permits now. But not picky enough, according to the backers of a countywide initiative that would require developers to widen roads or otherwise improve traffic in congested areas before they could build. The local building industry says it would bring construction--and the county's economy--to a screeching halt.

The initiative would affect only projects in the unincorporated areas of the county, and Rancho Santa Margarita lies entirely in an unincorporated area. By virtue of the company's huge landholdings and its high stake in the outcome of the growth debate, affable Tony Moiso has been thrust--one senses, somewhat unwillingly--into a role as one of the spokesmen for the county's large and powerful community of developers.

He professes bewilderment at what several polls say is widespread public support for the initiative, which could make it onto the ballot this year. He points to the 25,000 acres the Santa Margarita Co. has set aside permanently and which he says it has no plans to develop at any time in the future.

Yet this is also the company that--like several other large developers--has already angered the slow-growth movement by asking county government for permission to build thousands of houses on its land in return for spending millions of dollars on road construction in the southern part of Orange County.

In effect, say the slow-growth advocates, the developers are trying to get around the intent of the initiative. In return, they're building roads that they would eventually have been required to build anyway, initiative backers say.

Moiso, who looks younger than his 48 years, lives in Laguna Beach but commutes to a long, low-slung office in a building that looks like a big ranch house. The house is set on a hill outside downtown San Juan Capistrano, and country music plays softly in the spacious living room that serves as the lobby while a fire dies down to embers in the massive stone \f7 fireplace.

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