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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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Pondering the Future of Unincorporated South Orange County

According to the San Juan Capistrano Patch, San Juan Capistrano city officials got their seat at the table when LAFCO begins discussing local governance options for unincorporated South Orange County.  No word yet on whether the Ladera Ranch Civic Council received the same courtesy.  You know how we feel about that.  Recall, in an earlier article, that we thought Rancho Santa Margarita was most likely going to annex Las Flores and Coto de Caza (as well as Wagon Wheel).

Why is the extension of Rancho Santa Margarita’s sphere of influence over Coto de Caza and Las Flores meaningful?  Because in its own words, LAFCO views a city’s sphere of influence as “the probable long-term boundary (given population projections and future service needs) for a city or special district. It’s a planning tool used by LAFCOs to help determine if future annexations make sense.”

Likewise in that same article, we discussed the prospects for incorporating a new city consisting of Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.  It appears that LAFCO still views South Orange County in the same way.  According to the Patch article, LAFCO is bifurcating discussions on South County governance into two subgroups:

The Rancho Mission Viejo area, including:

  • The Rancho Mission Viejo development
  • Ladera Ranch
  • The existing cities of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente

The Rancho Santa Margarita Area, including:

  • Coto de Caza
  • Las Flores
  • The existing city of Rancho Santa Margarita

It doesn’t take much to see LAFCO’s roadmap, does it?  Conspicuously absent is Mission Viejo, a city that we felt could easily and logically annex Las Flores and/or Ladera Ranch.  But using the roadmap above as a guide, let’s hypothesize three different scenarios.

Scenario One:  Dos Ranchos

This is the scenario we believe makes the most sense.  In this scenario, the highly successful city of Rancho Santa Margarita annexes two unincorporated islands that lie largely within its geographical border (albeit outside its legal border) in Las Flores and Coto de Caza.  RSM has a thriving economy and substantial tax basis, so it can absorb the net expenses that come with residential communities of Las Flores and Coto — with the caveat that the County of Orange is going to need to renegotiate its cost-sharing agreement with Rancho Santa Margarita.

Simultaneously, the combined communities of Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo will be placed on a path to cityhood.  We’ll call that city Rancho Mission Viejo for now.  The boundaries of this entity make geographical sense, and the communities are likely to have much in common in terms of planning, density, age and aesthetics.  If the Ranch Plan is built as currently contemplated, future planning areas will have sufficient commercial activity to generate the necessary tax revenue.

Rancho Santa Margarita has 47,853 residents.  Coto de Caza has 14,866 and Las Flores has 6,000.  The “new” Rancho Santa Margarita would have 68,719.  Ladera Ranch has 22,980 residents and at full build-out, Rancho Mission Viejo is expected to eventually bring in 42,000 more.  The combined Rancho Mission Viejo City would have 64,980 residents.  By comparison, Mission Viejo has 93,305, San Clemente has 63,522 and San Juan Capistrano has 34,593.  (We used Orange County Census data from 2010 to generate our population estimates, with the except of the Ranch Plan, for which we used 14,000 planned residences multiplied by an average of 3 residents per household.)

Below is a map depicting the boundaries of the new Cities of Rancho Santa Margarita and Rancho Mission Viejo.  The internal dotted lines show the boundaries of the existing communities (Ladera, Las Flores and Coto) and the boundaries of the Ranch Plan in the south and east.

Potential Boundaries for a post-annexation City of Rancho Santa Margarita (pink) and newly incorporated City of Rancho Mission Viejo (brown)

Scenario Two: A Super City

The two cities described above have more in common with each other than with any surrounding cities.  They were all developed on Rancho Mission Viejo by the family that owns the Ranch.  They are of roughly the same age, municipally speaking, they have similar master plans and architectural styles featuring a casual, family-friendly suburban feel that morphs into semi-rural and pastoral as you reach the eastern and southern edges.  They share a common history as a Ranch, and would benefit from common municipal government.  Why would Rancho Santa Margarita not annex it all?  Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo?  The combined city of Rancho Santa Margarita would has a population of 133,699 people, a strong and diverse economy and a vast geographical expanse.  The new supercity would be a modest south Orange County counterweight to Irvine in central Orange County, which has a population of approximately 212,375, and Anaheim and Santa Ana in the north, each with a population in excess of 300,000.

The concept of a South County super city is not a new one.  In November 1994, on the heels of the Orange County bankruptcy, the County engaged in a concerted effort to incorporate or annex unincorporated islands, including the communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Foothill Ranch, Las Flores, Coto de Caza and Aliso Viejo.  The super city concept would have assembled most of these areas into a single, sprawling new city.  Rancho Santa Margarita residents overhwhelmingly opposed the idea of the super city at the time, and ultimately those unincorporated areas went in separate directions.  RSM and Aliso Viejo each incorporated, and Foothill Ranch was annexed by Lake Forest, under whose sphere of influence it had been previously placed.  As you know, Las Flores and Coto remain unincorporated islands.

Scenario Three: Annexation Only

What if LAFCO determined that it was not in Orange County’s best interests to create a new city in the South?  What if political opposition made the creation of a super city impossible?  It seems then that the only outcome would be divide up unincorporated areas and annex them to adjacent cities.  By that account, Rancho Santa Margarita would likely annex Coto and Las Flores (that is starting to seem inevitable, isn’t it?).  Ladera Ranch would likely join Mission Viejo.  And most of Rancho Mission Viejo would go to San Juan Capistrano, with the exception of Planning Area 8 (see development bubble map below) which is geographically isolated from the rest of the Ranch Plan and would likely join Talega in San Clemente.  Below is the Ranch Plan map that shows the different planning areas.  Planning Area 3 will contain the commercial core of Rancho Mission Viejo, while Planning Area 8 (which has yet to be mapped, pending the outcome of additional environmental studies) will also contain commercial properties.  Note that Planning Area 8 is isolated from the traffic infrastructure of the rest of the Ranch Plan — from a traffic, commuter, shopping and emergency response perspective, it relates to San Clemente more than San Juan.

Ranch Plan Development Bubbles

This third scenario makes sense for Rancho Santa Margarita.  It’s not a terrible outcome for either Mission Viejo or Ladera Ranch, because the two have some commonalities and Mission Viejo has the population and economy to absorb residential Ladera.  But we believe that it is a terrible outcome for San Juan Capistrano.  At the full build-out of the Ranch, San Juan Capistrano will have more than doubled in population, with over half of those residents living outside the current city boundaries.  As we mentioned, San Juan Capistrano already suffers from being split down the middle by the 5 freeway, so how does it digest a master planned community in the far east?  San Juan Capistrano is a historic, small town with a rural, western sensibility.  Rancho Mission Viejo will be a modern, sprawling master-planned community with large homeowners associations and community owned private amenities surrounded by tract developments, retail centers and big box stores.  It seems almost impossible imagining the residents of old San Juan and new San Juan agreeing on anything.  How will old San Juan feel when they are consistently outvoted by the larger population to the east?

Don’t forget Rancho Mission Viejo Company.  As the landowner of much of this territory, they have both influence and opinions on the subjects of cityhood and annexation.  How would they feel about being annexed by the City of San Juan Capistrano?  Recall that San Juan has several members of the City Council openly suggesting that the City renegotiate the terms of the purchase agreement for the RMV Riding Park and adjacent property.  Recall further that San Juan has been at times adversarial to the Ranch Plan development.  Rancho Mission Viejo Company is not going to want to add new layers of politics and bureaucracy between them and completing the Ranch Plan.  Annexation by San Juan Capistrano threatens to do just that.

No, frankly, we don’t see a scenario where San Juan Capistrano annexes any meaningful part of Rancho Mission Viejo.  Rather, we suspect San Juan has asked for a seat at the table to make sure whatever results isn’t a threat to San Juan with respect to political influence, economic clout, traffic impact or emergency resource drain.  San Juan Capistrano may not want Scenario Three, but it may have to bluff in order to avoid Scenario Two.  Frankly, to us, Scenario One seems the most logical, most broadly acceptable and most likely outcome from LAFCO.

There is much more to all of this.  Beyond the relative populations at issue, there is also the issue of balancing economic activity and tax revenue, for which we lack figures.  In the case of Rancho Mission Viejo, those figures won’t be known until Planning Area 3 is complete, years from now.  There is also the issue of governance costs — the amount of government services each of these communities consumes.  Someone will need to analyze these areas and put a price tag on them.  This is one of the important analyses that LAFCO does, by the way.

Another key question yet to be asked is what do the residents want?  Between LAFCO, the San Juan Capistrano City Council, the Ladera Ranch Civic Council and other organizations, no one seems to have taken the temperature of the local residents on their preferences regarding cityhood or annexation.  As best we can tell, Coto residents generally oppose cityhood or annexation of their gated, rural community.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of grassroots interest in Ladera Ranch or Las Flores towards any of these options, but perhaps that’s because no one is thinking about them yet.

If you are interested in attending the next LAFCO meeting, the public is invited and it will be held on September 11, 2013 at 8:30 AM in the Planning Commission Hearing Room, located in the Orange County Hall of Administration at 10 Civic Center Plaza in Santa Ana.

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