NEIGHBORLY ADVICE: NELLIE GAIL RANCH – — Compared to the high-density residential developments surrounding it, Laguna Hills’ Nellie Gail Ranch is an anomaly. A stone’s throw from major freeways and a few miles from the ocean, employment and shopping centers, Nellie Gail offers its residents a combination of equestrian-themed tract and custom homes spread across its 1,350 acres.

Early days

Nellie Gail Ranch was named after successful rancher Lewis Moulton’s wife. Moulton arrived in Southern California in 1874 via Boston and Chicago. Although he missed the Gold Rush and the cattle industry was already devastated by drought and rustlers, Moulton learned the sheepherding business as an Irvine Ranch hand.

Gradually, Moulton leased some grazing land and then purchased various portions of Rancho Niguel that Don Juan Avila had lost after California came under U.S. rule in 1850. Moulton’s land holdings totaled 22,000 acres by 1895, and the spread was renamed the Moulton-Niguel Ranch.

A little more than a decade later, Moulton formed a partnership with Jean Pierre Daguerre, another successful sheepherder. Together, they acquired even more land (adding cattle and raising barley and beans) until their holdings doubled those of the original Rancho Niguel. The northern lands retained by the Moulton family would eventually become Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills, Leisure World (now the city of Laguna Woods) and Nellie Gail Ranch.

After Moulton died in 1938, Nellie Gail and family members managed the property until it was broken up and subdivided in the 1960s.

Presley of Southern California, a subsidiary of the Presley Companies, started developing Nellie Gail in the mid-1970s. (William Lyon Homes has since acquired Presley.)

“Back then, Nellie Gale was a very small community,” said Lloyd Gass, principal of Lloyd W. Gass & Associates, Prudential California Realty. “It was considered the Beverly Hills of Orange County. Hundreds of cars would drive through on the weekends and gawk at the custom homes. At the time, it was the only place around that had really high-end custom homes.”

The migration of people from the greater Los Angeles area as well as from northern Orange County looking for cheaper land, more space and new schools to south Orange County was taking hold, Gass said. “It was the exciting new area to move to.”

Inside story

“Nellie Gail is really known for its lots; the smallest is about 12,000 square feet,” said Ron Maddux, an agent with Lloyd W. Gass & Associates. “Then it jumps to 30,000 square feet and then to four and five acres.”

Elaine Randall, who moved into Nellie Gail 15 years ago, agrees the area’s big draw is the combination of huge lots, 20 miles of equestrian trails and open space. “I don’t ride horses, but I walk my dogs on the trials all the time,” Randall said. “Within a half-mile of my house, there are two parks. Many of the homes sit on an acre of land, which is what I was used to growing up in Michigan.”

Good and Bad

Nellie Gail has attracted its share of eccentric high rollers, looking for space and privacy. The most infamous being Broadcom co-founder Henry T. Nicholas III who rankled the community’s nerves a few years back with his wild parties and no-permit-needed remodeling philosophy while perched atop his 15,000-square-foot, red-roofed hillside mansion. 

Housing stock

Since the beginning of the year, there have been more two dozen homes on the market, ranging in price from almost $1.3 million for a tract home to more than $6 million, with three sales above $2 million, according to Maddux. Recently there were 16 active listings at or above $2 million. The lowest-priced custom home is listed for just under $1.6 million.

The lowest-priced sale this year was a 2,580-square-foot, split-level four-bedroom tract home with a three-car garage, which sold for $950,000, Maddux said. There have only been a couple of foreclosures and short sales are far and few between, he said.

Report card

Nellie Gail Ranch students are serviced by the Saddleback Valley Unified Public School District. Valencia Elementary School scored a 933 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2008 Academic Performance Index. Students can move on to La Paz Middle School, which scored 872, and to Laguna Hills High School, which scored 848.

Sources: “Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II” edited by Rob Kling, Spencer Olin and Mark Poster; “A Hundred Years of Yesterdays, A Centennial History of the People of Orange County and Their Communities”, second edition,;