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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

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Is Cityhood in the Future for Rancho Mission Viejo and Ladera Ranch?

Will Rancho Mission Viejo be Orange County’s 35th City?  That’s the question recently asked by the Orange County Register in this article.

“There’s a strong revenue base for the development of an incorporated city,” Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates said.

Bates, in her role as a member of the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, has been meeting with area leaders to discuss governance options for Rancho Mission Viejo.

Choices could include forming a community service area or district, Bates said. Or the development east of San Juan Capistrano could be joined with nearby unincorporated communities to create a new city – so long as that city would have a tax base large enough to support services such as public safety and road improvements.

There’s been talk of a potential city that includes unincorporated Ladera Ranch, Las Flores, Wagon Wheel Canyon and Coto de Caza, according to Bates. However, that likely would form a city with too many geographic barriers and not enough commercial tax revenue, she added.

“I think Ladera (Ranch) and Rancho Mission Viejo probably do make sense in terms of combining into a city down there,” Bates said.

We have long been wondering about future cityhood for Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.  In one of our first ever articles, nearly a year ago, we considered whether Rancho Mission Viejo would be the anchor of Orange County’s next and last city.

We began by describing the current state of affairs and predicted that at some point, the combined communities of Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo would be too big to be governed as unincorporated areas of Orange County:

Ladera Ranch, Las Flores and the Rancho Mission Viejo development are all located in unincorporated Orange County.  Among other things, this means that our communities lack a municipal government and depend on the County for services.  The most obvious and visible example of this is the fact that the Orange County Sheriff is responsible for law enforcement here.  But it is likely that at some point we will become citizens of Orange County’s next, and possibly last, city.

Both Ladera Ranch and Las Flores are census-designated places, or CDPs.  CDPs are communities that lack a municipal government, but which otherwise resemble cities.  Ladera Ranch is a 4,000 acre master planned community with a population of just under 23,000 people.  Las Flores is smaller, and has a population of around 6,000 people.  Once the Ranch Plan is completed, it will add another 14,000 residences to the unincorporated area.  Using a 3:1 ratio for persons per household, the Ranch Plan will host another 42,000 residents.  At full build-out, the combined unincorporated area will be home to 71,000 people, and one can imagine that the services required to sustain a community of that size will swamp the County’s ability to provide such services.

We speculated about the size of the future Ladera Ranch/Rancho Mission Viejo city:

By way of comparison, with a population of around 71,000, our community will be slightly smaller than Lake Forest or Newport Beach, and slightly larger than San Clemente and Laguna Niguel.  Interesting municipal factoids: Villa Park is OC’s smallest city with a population of less than 6,000 residents.  Aliso Viejo is OC’s newest city, having incorporated in 2001.  Anaheim is both the oldest and the largest city, incorporated in 1870 with a current population of 336,000.  Ladera Ranch is almost the largest CDP in Orange County — but that distinction belongs to North Tustin with a population of just under 25,000.

And at the end of that article, we concluded as follows:

With the completion of the Ranch Plan, one imagines there will be a compelling push for incorporation as a city.  Together, Ladera Ranch, Las Flores and the Rancho Mission Viejo development comprise the population and likely boundaries of that future city.  Coto de Caza is a CDP with 14,000 residents and could conceivable join the new city, but that is a less obvious combination for various reasons.  Of course, there are a number of administrative and legal hurdles to becoming a city, not least of which is the County’s requirement of revenue neutrality.  More on that later.  But if and when it occurs, we will become Orange County’s 35th (and possibly last) city.

One interesting takeaway is the timing of the cityhood discussion.  We thought that it might start picking up speed later in the Ranch Plan buildout, but it appears that the County Board of Supervisors are already working on the question, which implies that it may occur closer to the beginning of the Ranch Plan buildout.  Recall that the Ranch Plan will be built over nearly twenty years.

In our opinion, future cityhood is a critical issue influencing the development and success of the Ranch Plan.  In many of our subsequent writings here at Rancho Ortega, we have taken the position that Rancho Mission Viejo should be designed in a way that lays the groundwork for a future city — a city that will likely incorporate Ladera Ranch and possibly other nearby communities.  That means creating centers of commercial activity (in addition to retail and residential components), providing for a robust tax base, developing a true “downtown” and laying the groundwork for interconnection of facilities and amenities throughout all the communities.  It also means working with the government and agencies of Orange County to put in place a governance structure that will transition easily into a municipal government.  The existence of the Ladera Ranch Civic Council is an example of this — a non-governmental civic body that acts as a de facto city council, building capacity and expertise for a possible future city.

Interestingly, we’ve always wondered why the Ladera Ranch Chamber of Commerce was named “Ladera Rancho Chamber of Commerce.”  It always sounded awkward to us.  Well, the Register article has the answer:

[Ladera Civic Council member Jett] McCormick said his community’s chamber was named Ladera Rancho Chamber of Commerce in anticipation of a joint business support and development effort one day. Rancho Mission Viejo is slated to include 5 million square feet of commercial space, according to Ranch officials.

Ladera Ranch + Rancho Mission Viejo = Ladera Rancho.  Got it.  It works fine for a combined Chamber of Commerce, but let’s just say that we wouldn’t put “Ladera Rancho” on our list of top 10 suggestions for the name of the new city.

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