Coto de Caza is a suburban planned community of about 4,000 homes, and one of Orange County’s oldest and most expensive master planned communities. The project began in 1968, when it was envisioned as a hunting lodge, now the Lodge at Coto de Caza, and the community was completed in 2003. For the 1984 Summer Olympics, the community served as host to the riding, running, shooting, and fencing portions of the modern pentathlon events. Around the town there are still undeveloped lots available for purchase. Currently there are two 18-hole golf courses, and two club houses, one considered the “old club” and the other the “new club.” The new club, the Coto De Caza Golf & Racquet Club, harbors the facilities of the two golf courses and adjacent ten tennis courts. The old club, located in the residential area known as “the Village,” was once home to tennis guru and teacher Vic Braden. The old club was also the home location for the Coto de Caza Youth Swim Team. The new club finished construction of the new Spa & Sports Club building in April 2008 that houses a new fitness center with state-of-the-art StarTrac exercise equipment, a spa with many services, a snack bar with Starbuck’s coffee, and the Michael Chang tennis hall of fame and member lounge. The golf courses are both Robert Trent Jones Jr. design. The North course was rated the most difficult golf course in all of Orange County.
Coto De Caza History:
PRESERVING THE HUNT: 1963-78
Despite the lush vegetation that covers Coto de Caza today, when the valley was claimed by Spanish ranchers 200 years ago, it consisted of grassy hills – green half the year, golden the other half – with the occasional live oak or head of cattle dotting the landscape.Little had changed by the time Ernest Bryant Jr. bought the property in the 1930s. Open space populated with deer, sporting birds and the occasional mountain lion made Bryant Ranch an ideal retreat for hunters and nature enthusiasts. Five decades ago, the transition from private ranch to private master-planned community began when Bryant sold 5,000 acres for a reported $5 million to Macco Realty, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Railroad.”It was great living in that space with kerosene lamps and bonfires,” recalled Scott Caldwell, son to Macco’s executive officer H.L. “Jack” Caldwell. “Nights wrapped early, but it was great fun, and days started early.”
The Coto de Caza Development Corp. formed in 1963, keeping a connection to the area’s history with a name in Spanish that translates to “hunting preserve.” Scott Caldwell recalls sitting in a room with his father, a fan of Mexican culture, as he and a friend settled on the title and forged a branding iron with the now-famous “CZ” logo in commemoration. The Coto de Caza Hunt Club and equestrian center occupied the original, north section of the community, counting William Shatner and John Wayne among its members. “When I was probably 5 or 6, I would have to go out there every weekend and ride horses,” said Ethan Wayne, 51, youngest son to John Wayne. His famous father would play cards at the lodge while young Ethan would train with his horse, Handsome Boy. “It was literally just a barn with stables and a little barn office. “The family that ran the hunt club lived for a short time in what’s now the General Store. The nearby former site of Merryhill School was built as a conference center, with ads touting Coto as a place business executives could meet up or escape. Coto Valley Country Club opened in 1970 with a swimming pool, gymnasium, racquetball courts and a bowling alley, according to Joe Hart, who’s lived in Coto for 25 years and helps run that original county club. That same year, the community’s first homeowners association was formed to oversee the area now known as the Village. Macco – which soon merged into Great Southwest Corp./Six Flags Corp. – put lots on the market in 1974, but Hart said they were having trouble selling them. “That’s when they invited Vic Braden to come in,” he said. “And it worked.” The celebrated tennis coach opened Vic Braden Tennis College, launching a scientific approach to improving his students’ game that led to articles in Time magazine and helped put Coto on the map. Construction started on Coto’s first homes in 1975 in the Village, along Via Alondra. A few years later, work began on the equestrian area Los Ranchos Estates, which today includes most of the priciest real estate in Coto.
THE FIRST BOOM: 1979-95
As Pennsylvania Railroad, then Penn Central, dissolved into bankruptcy, its Florida-based Arvida Corp. took over Coto de Caza in 1979 and began a targeted marketing campaign. “If your dream is to live in the country – not far from the city – discover Coto de Caza, a 5,000 acre valley of the most beautiful land in Southern California,” boasted a 1980s ad in Orange Coast Magazine, promoting 1- to 5.5-acre lots starting at $155,000. “Here you will find a private guard-gated community nestled in the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains.” That rural quality is what led Gen. William Lyon and his wife, Willa Dean, to buy 134 acres to build their now-famous estate in Coto around 1981, two years after his retirement from a 35-year career in the Air Force. “My wife, being a Texan, preferred to get out in the country somewhere, so we started driving around different places,” the 90-year-old founder of William Lyon Homes recalled. “We finally settled on a piece of land … and it’s been a wonderful experience for us.” In 1984, Arvida – bought that year by Walt Disney Corp. – signed an agreement with Chevron Corp. and City Federal Savings & Loan to build 6,000 homes in Coto de Caza. Together, the companies envisioned new ways to lure people to invest in one of the country’s largest gated communities. They got a boost from 1984’s Los Angeles Summer Olympics, which hosted the modern pentathlon in Coto. Via Masala, near Coto’s equestrian center, was named after the event’s gold medal winner, Italy’s Daniele Masala. That year also marked the first visit for Michael Chang, who went on to become one of tennis’ greatest players and build his home in Coto in 1990. “I don’t think people really knew a whole lot about Coto then,” Chang said, recalling the community’s limited access when he went to play in a Disney-sponsored tournament at the Vic Braden Tennis College in 1984 at just 12 years old. “Coto was really kind of a very secluded community, a woody area.” In 1985, crews broke ground on an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones to run down the middle of Coto de Caza. The north course officially opened in 1987, with a trailer to welcome its customers and a $20,000 initiation fee for nonowners. There were 23 founding members of the golf club, including Lyon and his wife along with restaurateur David Wilhelm and his wife, Victoria. Several are still members, turning out for a 25th anniversary celebration in 2012. Still the community remained isolated and rural. Chili cookoffs, cowboy-themed parties and triathlons of tennis, shooting and horseback riding were among their traditions, with everyone gathering around the Coto Valley Country Club pool throughout the summer. The last connection to the hunting preserve was cut off in 1991, when Arvida – then owned by JMB Realty – abruptly shuttered the south shooting range. A smaller range opened on the east side of the community, though it shut down in 1992. Wildlife still makes its way into the community, with residents recently reporting sightings of mountain lions and golden eagles.
Coto de Caza Golf & Racquet Club opened in 1991, with its south golf course to follow four years later. The country club remains the social hub for Coto, with residents meeting there to work out or grab a cocktail.
COMPLETING COTO: 1996-2013
Lennar took over development of Coto in 1996, launching an effort to build lower-density neighborhoods in the southern portion of the community. By 2003, Lennar had completed its work, finishing out the last of 45 branded neighborhoods. “It grew by leaps and bounds, and I think it developed out into a nice community,” Lyon said. “There’s very little crime or any of that going on, and people feel very comfortable. …It’s a pleasant place to be.” As the population grew, Nobel Learning Communities in 1997 bought the buildings that once served as Coto’s conference center. Merryhill School opened, serving preschool through second-grade students for more than a decade before shutting down in 2008 because of enrollment issues. The General Store next door remains open today, owned by the same family that’s run the store, deli and soda fountain since 1988. It’s the only commercial enterprise in Coto beyond the country clubs and equestrian center, with residents doing most of their shopping outside the gates in neighboring Rancho Santa Margarita or Ladera Ranch. The gated community and its well-to-do residents held allure for the outside world, evident as news stories popped up about the full-size historic train going around George Thagard’s home or the observatory Bob Buchheim built in his backyard. That’s how 27-year resident Scott Dunlop in the early 2000s came up with the idea for a television show initially called “Behind the Gates.” “I just wanted to have some fun with my neighbors,” Dunlop said, taking “a satirical look at life in affluent suburbia.” That concept evolved into “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” a reality TV show in its eighth season on Bravo that has spawned several spinoffs. “It has definitely put Coto de Caza on the map from a pop culture standpoint,” Dunlop said.Reality TV notoriety aside, residents say Coto remains a secluded and quiet community, keeping up annual traditions with its Easter EGGstravaganza and Fourth of July parade. A few new amenities have been added to the community in the last five years, including the main country club’s Spa and Sports Club, a polo arena and a dog park known as the Canine Corrals. There isn’t room for much more, though, with hundreds of acres of trail-laced open space that can’t be developed.
Though Coto’s size is stabilized, there are some questions about its next 50 years that remain uncertain: What will happen to the dilapidated General Store and Merryhill School properties? Will Coto become part of an existing or future city? Longtime residents can’t see Coto changing much, however. And that’s fine with them.