When he left his job in 1978 as a master planner for the Irvine Co. after 15 years, Richard Reese had plans to spend a year in the Greek Islands. But before he could pack his bags, Reese was asked to look over a 5,000-acre piece of south Orange County that was slated for development.
Although he was reluctant to consider planning another community, when Reese surveyed what would become Rancho Santa Margarita, he felt an unusual connection to the land.
"As I came over Chiquita Ridge and looked down on Plano Trabuco with the sycamore- and oak-filled canyons, the chaparral-covered hillsides and Saddleback Mountain in the distance, I thought it had to be the most marvelous opportunity I could have to create a planned community," he said.
Reese never made it to Greece. Instead he helped plan and design Rancho Santa Margarita, where he lives today.
The town, now 10 years old, is nestled in a valley between the hills of Mission Viejo and Coto de Caza and framed by Saddleback Mountain. It is bounded to the south by the 1,000-acre new community of Las Flores, which is next to Oso Parkway; to the east by the Chiquita Ridge and Plano Trabuco Road; to the north by Trabuco Canyon and the foothills of Saddleback Mountain; and to the west by portions of Mission Viejo and O'Neil Regional Park.
Rancho Santa Margarita has been called Orange County's first urban village. It was created as a self-contained community in harmony with the land, and more than half of the town's 5,000 acres is devoted to open space and recreational uses, including a man-made lake with a beach club, an 18-hole tournament-style golf course, 24 athletic fields and seven community parks.
Driving in Rancho Santa Margarita isn't a necessity for the town's more than 25,000 residents. Bike and walking paths link all residential neighborhoods to major recreational facilities, shops, schools, day-care centers, a post office and restaurants. The town has a traditional center that includes homes, restaurants, shops, a library and soon-to-open movie theater. Many other businesses are located in Rancho Santa Margarita as well.
"Our objective was to create a place where people could live, work and recreate near their home," said Reese, who bought an 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath home for $190,000 when the town was begun in 1986. "We wanted to create an old-fashioned hometown atmosphere where people could experience a more nurturing lifestyle."
To many residents and onlookers, the planners of Rancho Santa Margarita have been successful. In a 1992 episode of "20/20," Barbara Walters dubbed the town a modern-day Shangri-La. Developers from throughout the nation and other countries regularly come to study the community's design.
Although developers sought a hometown feel and beautiful setting, they knew that affordable housing was important too. When the first homes went on sale in 1986, condominiums were priced as low as $55,000 and single-family detached homes began at $113,000. Prospective owners camped out to ensure a home.
Today affordability is still a major attraction of Rancho Santa Margarita, said Jack Cable, a Realtor and manager of the Coldwell Banker office in Rancho Santa Margarita.
"Right now we have 11 different tracts with homes for sale, all in [a variety of] price ranges," said Cable, who has lived in the community for almost seven years.
In resale homes, on the low end there are one- and two-bedroom condos from 600 square feet to 1,100 square feet, ranging from $58,000 to $100,000. Mid-range, you'll find two- to three-bedroom houses with two to 2 1/2 baths from 1,000 square feet to 1,800 square feet that run from $148,000 to $200,000. On the upper end, there are 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot, four- and five-bedroom houses with 2 1/2 to three bathrooms for $210,000 to $400,000.
New-home construction is underway in several neighborhoods by a variety of builders, including John Laing Homes, K. Hovnanian Co., Hertel Homes, Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., Warmington Homes, Chadmar Homes and Newcrest Development. Lewis Homes just bought 500 lots in the community and is to begin building single-family homes immediately in the $160,000 to $270,000 price range.
In new homes, there are 900- to 975-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bath condos in the golf course area for a little under $110,000. The average new house sells for $175,000 to $225,000 for a four-bedroom, three-bath home of 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. On the high end, you'll find 3,400-square-foot five-bedroom, three-bath homes for a little more than $310,000. Sam Nasser recently bought a two-bedroom 870-square-foot, 2 1/2-bath detached home in the Los Abanicos development built by RGC/K. Young Homes Inc. for $124,000. He rented in the community for three years before buying. Rancho Santa Margarita's affordable prices and many recreational amenities attracted him.