Highlands Ranch History Spotlight: How to Implement a Master Plan

Forty-three years after it was first conceived, Mission Viejo’s dream has come to fruition. With more than 20,000 developed acres, Highlands Ranch is one of the largest planned communities in the United States. Starting with the first completed home in 1981, Highlands Ranch now comprises 35,510 houses with a population of around 100,000.

These figures align almost precisely with Mission Viejo’s 1978 vision of 30,000 homes, a population of 90,000, and two town centers with supermarkets, drug stores, professional offices, and commercial recreation built over a 25- to 30-year period.

After the Mission Viejo Company entered into an agreement to purchase the Highlands Ranch property, the company initiated a three-phase planning program. The program intended “to prepare a plan for a compact, balanced, new town that would be aesthetically pleasing, environmentally and socially responsible and economically viable,” according to Mission Viejo materials found at the archives.

By 1987, the company felt close enough to its goal to declare “Highlands Ranch The Pride of Colorado … No community satisfies both your needs and wants like Highlands Ranch.”

The master plan made realtor Teri Leonard’s job easy as she peddled Highlands Ranch real estate in the 1980s. “Because of the planning and effort that went into building Highlands Ranch, it was hardly any work selling it. Taking families through the recreation center to see what the community had to offer was often all the selling that was needed,” Leonard said.

That satisfaction, the company believed, came from the amenities Highlands Ranch offered, including pools, golf courses, neighborhood schools, community recreation centers, acres of greenbelts, and community events.

The events were central to building the sense of community Mission Viejo desired. Promotional materials advertised the Easter bunny leading children to an Easter egg hunt at Northridge Park, a kids’ bicycle parade on the Fourth of July, kite-flying contests, chili cook-offs, Santa’s workshop, apple pie baking contests, and softball games.

In 1982, the community celebrated its first Highlands Ranch Days, receiving permission from the county commissioners to serve beer at the hoedown from 8 p.m. to midnight. Julie Colby was one of the winners in the first bake-off, creating a Raspberry Layer Pie using Jell-O and cream cheese. At the 1983 Highlands Ranch Days a cheesecake sold for $47 at the live auction.

Ultimately, Mission Viejo’s plan was about more than infrastructure. The company wanted to create in Highlands Ranch a “sense of community,” “intimacy and a sense of true belonging,” “a place where people once again know their neighbors,” and “a feeling that makes the quality of life here very special.”

For those 100,000 citizens in Highlands Ranch today, do you think Mission Viejo’s aspirations were achieved?

To discover more about this topic or items in the archives, please check out the Archives & Local History digital collections or contact archives staff.

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