Coto De Caza
It took twenty years for Coto de Caza’s market to arrive. When it first opened in 1976 as a master-planned community, it was an isolated corner of Orange County, 12 miles inland and 18 miles southeast of Irvine, in the canyon lands east of Mission Viejo. In the ensuing years, during market downturns and ownership changes, the vision of a woodland-filled, environmentally attuned master-planned community has never wavered. Now that population and employment centers and road access have expanded to its doorstep, Coto de Caza’s homesites are nearing buildout, with just a handful of custom lots still available.
Coto de Caza (idiomatically translated from the Portuguese as “The preserve of the hunt”) originated as a working ranch in the 1700s, with a hunting lodge and riding center. Actor John Wayne kept his horse, Pretty Boy, at the Coto ranch, and he practiced shooting on its range. In 1970, covenants were drawn up to preserve the rural valley setting of the property as lots were sold for vacation homes. More than 2,200 acres-45 percent-were set aside as open space and wildlife refuges.
At first, Coto remained isolated. That all changed in 1994 when Oso Parkway was extended from Interstate 5 all the way to Coto de Caza’s south gate, and in 1995 when the Foothill transportation corridor-a highway and feeder system-opened. The growth of adjacent Rancho Santa Margarita brought with it nearby schools and stores. In anticipation of increasing growth, which the community was already experiencing, homesites were remapped in 1994 to be located on grassy ranchland knolls rather than in the canyons, as originally approved. This resulted in the capture of substantial view premiums, preservation of native oak woodlands in the canyon bottoms, and retention of the rural character of the valley as originally envisioned. The number of homesites was voluntarily reduced to fewer than 4,000 from the originally approved 5,000.
The developers have remained true to the original vision of environmentally sensitive development. The 475-acre Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park was ceded to the county in 1994. More than 200 oaks were relocated to strategic points to preserve the rural atmosphere. Throughout the course of development, thousands of oaks and willows were preserved. In 1989, a computer-controlled central irrigation system was installed to manage the community’s water usage. In conjunction with the introduction of native and drought-tolerant plants, the system saves about $200,000 of water each year; it had paid for itself in two years. Indigenous grasses that had been stripped during centuries of ranch use were reintroduced, with support from the county fire authority, which helped to reduce water usage and to mitigate the possibility of grass fires.
In 1996, Orange County-based Lennar Communities took over as development manager. Under Lennar’s stewardship, Coto was repositioned to promote more luxurious homes and lower densities, coincident with the regional recovery from the recent recession. The average price of a home in Coto increased from $375,000 in 1996 to $840,000 in 2000, to well over a million dollars, today.
Today, Coto de Caza is widely recognized as one of the country’s largest gated communities. Homeowners have been united in their allegiance to the Coto way of life: in 1999, 25 percent of new home sales were to existing Coto residents. That dedication derives from the uncompromising position successive developers have maintained in their commitment to environmentally sensitive development, open space, conservation, and enhancement of the natural environment, despite changing economic conditions. Coto de Caza continues today, as a one of a kind community.
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