The story of Rancho Mission Viejo began in a deal struck with a handshake between fellow Irish immigrants, James Flood and Richard O’Neill, Sr. Flood, of the famed Comstock Lode’s silver fortune and O’Neill, a hard-working and well-respected cattleman born in the heart of Ireland’s dairy country and owner of a small meat market near the docks of San Francisco forged a friendship which endured through generations.
In 1882, Flood and O’Neill became equal partners of the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in northern San Diego and its adjoining Rancho Mission Viejo and Rancho Trabuco in southern Orange County. Collectively, the ranchos totaled more than 200,000 acres and were acclaimed by many as “the greatest of all California ranchos.” Flood provided the money to purchase the ranches while O’Neill, offering his skills as a cattleman as his sweat equity, agreed to work out his half as resident manager. In 1907, just twenty-five years after the original partnership was formed, Flood’s son made good on his handshake promise and conveyed an undivided half interest in the great Ranch property to O’Neill.
Since 1907, much has happened on Rancho Mission Viejo. In 1942, representatives from the U.S. Navy arrived at the family ranch house and took possession of the San Diego portions to establish today’s United States Marine Corps Base Camp Joseph H. Pendleton. The remaining 52,000 acres was under the control of Richard O’Neill, Jr., his wife, Marguerite, and their two children, Alice and Richard Jerome. The family united its holdings under the name Rancho Mission Viejo and began branding cattle with the O’Neill family’s new “Rafter M” brand, which endures today.
In 1943, upon the death of her husband, Richard, and with the ranch lands held in trust, Marguerite O’Neill stepped forward to lead the family. A fifth generation Californian, “Daisy,” as she was called, thwarted several attempts by the bank’s trust officers to liquidate her family’s holdings. With great determination and pride, she kept the land intact and, as much as possible, in her family’s control. To this day, Marguerite O’Neill’s admonition to “take care of the land and the land will take care of you” continues to guide the family.
By the 1960s, urbanization had found its way to the borders of Rancho Mission Viejo. In response to the demands of Orange County’s rapidly expanding population, the O’Neill family and its partners built the 10,000-acre planned community of Mission Viejo. Since that time, the O’Neill family and various partners have built the cities and communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Las Flores, and Ladera Ranch while remaining steadfastly dedicated to preserving the very best of Rancho Mission Viejo through dedications of ranch land which today are called O’Neill Regional Park, Riley Wilderness Park, and Caspers Wilderness Park.
Between the years 2004 and 2009, the O’Neill family secured all approvals for a comprehensive, science-based land use management/operation and open space preservation plan for the remaining 23,000 acres of the family ranch. Under this plan about 25% of the Ranch will be carefully planned over the next few decades into a new community while the remaining 75% will be forever set-aside as The Nature Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo.
The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo was established in 2007 and is the result of more than twenty years of study and collaboration between Rancho Mission Viejo, the County of Orange, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game and the environmental community. The study results and collaboration determined which areas of Rancho Mission Viejo should be perpetually preserved and which areas could be developed. The agreement that 75% of the ranch lands should be preserved and 25% developed is documented in a plan called the Southern Subregion Habitat Conservation Plan (SSHCP).
The purpose of the SSHCP is to provide long-term, large-scale protection of natural vegetation communities and wildlife diversity while allowing compatible land uses and appropriate development and growth. The Conservation Strategy set forth in the plan “focuses on long-term protection and management of multiple natural communities that provide habitat essential to the survival of a broad array of wildlife and plant species” (County of Orange 2006). The SSHCP creates a permanent habitat reserve consisting of (1) 11,950 acres of former ranch lands now owned by the County of Orange – OC Parks (O’Neill Regional Park, Riley Wilderness Park, and Caspers Wilderness Park) and (2) 20,868 acres owned by Rancho Mission Viejo (The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo).
The Reserve is a 501(c)(3) public supporting charity whose purpose is to accept Rancho Mission Viejo lands for inclusion into the habitat reserve. Lands are dedicated to the habitat reserve through the recordation of conservation easements. See the Map section for a depiction of the current Reserve and how the Reserve will look in the future. The Reserve must ensure compliance with the terms of the conservation easements through annual inspections and independent review of annual reports prepared by Rancho Mission Viejo.
Management and monitoring of the habitat reserve is carried out by the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Trust, a partner non-profit private foundation.