Orange County Branch Newsletter

September 2015

History and Heritage

Recollections of Orange County’s Ebb and Flow of Infrastructure Development

By Carl Nelson, PE (retired)

Viewing OC Register headlines on August 6, 2015 stimulated my sharing of personal thoughts about infrastructure development in Orange County:

“Dropping the Bomb, ending WWII…the beginning of Orange County’s Population Explosion”

1956 was a big year in public works financing. Correlated with the continuing fear of nuclear war the Congress supported President Eisenhower’s  concept of a “National Defense Highway” by adopting the 1956 Interstate Highway System to overcome deficiencies experienced by the US armed forces during WWII. The new interstate concept provided a great stimulus with a federal gasoline tax and also required State and local coordination of Highway Planning, along with cost sharing.

The office of County Road Commissioner had been established by State Law in 1952 revolutionizing and enhancing both State and County’s road construction programs with a revised gasoline tax structure. Nonetheless, roads serving new subdivisions were required to be exclusively funded by the developers. 

The revised gasoline tax increased distributions to Counties and to Cities depending on incorporation status and population; hence augmenting limited availability of property taxes for road improvements. Regional circulation between cities had been provided by State Highways, among them Pacific Coast Highway, Beach Blvd., Los Alamitos Blvd., Garden Grove Blvd, and the “Grandaddy of Them All, US Highway 101” which was gradually converted to Freeway status between Buena Park and Santa Ana.

Also in 1956, the Orange County Board of Supervisors adopted a “Master Plan of Arterial Highways”. The MPAH is coordinated with the California Highway Commission’s “State Freeway and Expressway Plan”. Under the MPAH, a portion of the county’s gas tax is apportioned to cost-sharing to the cities for arterial widening construction in conformance with the MPAH standards. Oversight of the MPAH was re-assigned from County upon establishment of the Orange County Transportation Authority in the 1980s. South Orange County (SOC) was one of the early beneficiaries of the new Interstate Highway program.

I recall driving the narrow two lane US Highway 101 from San Diego to Tustin in the late 40s.

US Highway 101 paralleling Santa Fe RR north of San Juan Capistrano in the 1940s

Conversion of the old road to Freeway standards was completed from Santa Ana through San Clemente in 1959 with federal and state funding. Conjunctively, for local frontage access through Irvine Ranch, the County and State extended Valencia Ave. (subsequent name change to Irvine Center/Moulton Parkway) from Laguna Rd. southerly to El Toro Rd. There are only a few modern examples of County Road Fund expenditures for entirely new arterial highway construction. Some of these include the 1965 completion of Crown Valley Parkway through the length of Moulton Ranch from Pacific Coast Highway to old 101 (Camino Capistrano).

Crown Valley Parkway, a two lane roadway widening to Major Arterial funded by Laguna Niguel Corp.


An interchange with I-5 would await completion until 1969 with Interstate Funding; at which time Camino Capistrano became a cul de sac dead-ending at a Moulton Niguel waste water transfer facility.

Although a Southern California native, I first lived in the county after employment with Orange County Flood Control District in 1960. Established under State Law in 1927, the district’s concepts were stagnated by the impact of the Great Depression. Voters declined to approve bond issues in 1929 & 1931. The governing Board of Supervisors “home rule” conservatism became liberalized by the Roosevelt administration’s “New Deal” policies. With Congressional passage of the Flood Control Act of 1936 the Army Corps of Engineers received federal funding for construction of Prado Dam promptly after 1938’s “Flood of the Century”. Not until a successful bond election in 1956 could the district commence a county-wide program of flood control and drainage improvements financed exclusively from the voter-approved increase in property tax rate.

“Lewis Moulton’s 1874 arrival in OC prior to acquiring Rancho Niguel”

Early in my career as a member of the County’s Subdivision Committee I was invited to tour Moulton Ranch by auto with Mr. Ivar Hansen, spouse of Lewis Moulton’s daughter Louise. He and Louise lived in a modest, modern ranch home overlooking the valley of Aliso Creek. Lewis Moulton’s 22,000 acre ranch had spanned from the locked front gate at old US Highway 101 near the old town of El Toro to the oceanfront at Salt Creek Beach.

View of undeveloped ranch land along meandering Aliso Creek


In 1959 a 7,000 acre coastal portion of the ranch was sold to developers of the future city of Laguna Niguel. In 1961 a northerly 3,500 acre portion was sold for the initial development of Leisure World Laguna Woods. Additional sales led to the Laguna Hills “Nellie Gail Ranch” development. In 1976, the remainder of the ranch was acquired by the Mission Viejo Company for the development of the future city of Aliso Viejo. As a part of this latter development the company dedicated to the County 4,000 acres of open space land that would be named Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Park.

After the last sale, Mr. and Mrs. (nee Moulton) Hanson retired to a Santa Barbara County ranch.

Progressing toward a future city of Laguna Niguel, County Road funds would be extended a two lane extension of La Paz Rd. from I-5 to Crown Valley Parkway in conjunction with the Ziggurat development pictured below. Further widenings of the county’s original 2-lane roads were subsequently funded by adjacent private subdivision developments, along with storm drain construction meeting flood control district standards.

After imported water became available to the Moulton Niguel Water District, one of the next requirements for development was a waste water treatment facility. Initially, the district chose “Lagoon” treatment with a 40 ft. high dam on Sulphur Creek for the terminal storage of waste water that would later be cleaned up, and the lake dedicated to the county as a popular recreational element of Laguna Niguel Regional Park.

Laguna Niguel Regional Park Lake with Ziggurat in background


Prior to the foregoing subdivision oversight, I was assigned to work on a flood control district report, published in 1964, entitled “A Study of Flood Control and Drainage Deficiencies in Orange County, California”. The 1956 flood control district’s bond fund projects had been completed, but there remained many North County’s drainage deficiencies. At the time there had been almost no subdivisions of the large properties south of Tustin (Ranchos San Joaquin, de Los Alisos, Niguel, Trabuco and Mission Viejo); and no public funding was anticipated for private property protection. The 1964 Deficiency report recites funding alternatives, including flood control bond election possibilities for older unprotected areas, and/or alternatives such as developer financing where necessary to protect new developments. Moulton Ranch was still behind locked gates, inaccessible for cursory drainage investigations, but the excellent quality of USGS topo maps allowed reasonably good hydrologic analysis for the drainage report and estimates of construction costs, but no projections of future costs.

A new flood control bond election was scheduled for vote in 1966 and narrowly defeated. A re-vote in 1967 also failed, thereby keeping a lid on flood district construction funding. A further limit on property taxes was inflicted with passage of the 1978 “Proposition 13”. Hence, progress was slow on enlarging the district’s main channels from the original 25 year design to the 100 Year flood design mandated under the FEMA flood insurance program.

“The Ziggurat, Laguna Niguel Landmark”

Around 1967-68 I was invited to attend an infrastructure planning meeting at the “Buffalo Ranch” office of Architect William Pereira. Participants were primarily from the Laguna Niguel Corp., North American/Rockwell Corp. (NAR), Pereira, county planners and 5th Supervisors office. During the peak of the “Aerospace Economy” NAR was planning a large, corporate office building that could benefit South County’s housing and jobs economy if located in Laguna Niguel. The Ziggurat would be built entirely NAR expense, but access would be dependent upon County’s future extension of La Paz Rd. from the I-5 Freeway.

The Ziggurat before transition to Chet Holifield Federal Building

Further, the La Paz Rd. alignment involved the undergrounding of a meandering dry wash tributary to Aliso Creek where drainage flow rates would increase exponentially with pending upstream residential development. Promises of executive jobs at the new Ziggurat led to the Board of Supervisors funding the La Paz Rd. extension concurrent with undergrounding the “dry wash” flood Channel. Unfortunately, completion of the Ziggurat coincided with a collapse of the aerospace economy, and the building was traded to the federal government. Now utilized for lower income jobs than previously anticipated, the property also is assessed no property taxes. Nonetheless, after incorporation, the city of Laguna Niguel has become a prosperous city of 65,000 residents.

“California Living: Paying for Paradise”

This news article deals primarily with the high price of housing in Orange County; however, one of the inherent, but unwritten, costs of housing relates to infrastructure funding policies. During the unincorporated South County population growth of the 70s and 80s the Board of supervisors required developers to improve, not only internal tract improvements, but also any infrastructure necessary for service or access to the new development. These costs were simply added to developer’s “high costs of housing”. Since the 90s, new legislation has enabled the diversion of infrastructure costs from housing purchase price to another mechanism; whereby initial infrastructure costs are paid for with a revenue bond concept funded by “Mello-Roos” fees. This disguised mechanism for infrastructure financing, although temporarily improving residential sales, can mislead buyers who now have to pay Mello-Roos fees as an addition to property tax levies.

To be continued....Part 2 will be a separate story about the development of Mission Viejo.

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