by Margrit Kendrick (2004)
The history of the Rossmoor area reflected the history of Los Alamitos until 1888. That was the year when Rancho Los Alamitos was divided among the heirs of John Bixby and his partners, I. W. Hellman and the J. Bixby Co. (from Rancho Los Cerritos). The Los Alamitos town area and the eastern portion of the Rancho Los Alamitos became part of the J. Bixby Company. The center of the rancho, with the ranch house and the area that we now call Rossmoor, belonged to the heirs of John Bixby, his widow, and his children, Fred and Susanna Bixby.
After the start of the Los Alamitos Sugar Co. and founding of the town in 1897, the area was used for raising sugar beets and other crops. Sugar beets, which were worked by tenant farmers, brought a fair income in good years. Many times during heavy winter rains the San Gabriel River and the Coyote Creek spilled over their banks and flooded the area. At the turn of the century, levee work was done on the river, mostly to keep it from meandering over the countryside.
In the 1960s, in advance of the freeways, permanent cement channels were constructed for both the river and the creek and their levees were heightened. In the early 1950s, the growth of southern California and the need for housing became evident. Along came Ross Cortese, a young developer with a vision and the desire to build a large, exclusive community. This community of 3,500 homes was the largest yet to be built in Orange County. Cortese formed the Rossmoor Corporation in 1951, bought the land from the Fred Bixby Ranch Co., and began building in 1956. Rossmoor originally was announced as a subdivision of Los Alamitos. Later it was advertised as Long Beach’s smartest new suburb, even though Long Beach was in neighboring Los Angeles County. By June of 1957 the first homeowners started to move in. Homes were priced between $17,000 and $20,000. The planning for the community included tree-lined streets, spacious yards, and well-planned quality homes. Land planning, as well as the layout of streets, was directed toward “neighborhood cells” to create maximum appeal, safety, and home values. The plan also included six school sites, two shopping centers, and a medical complex.
Schools and Parks
Six school sites were planned with sufficient acreage to include space for recreation. Each was carefully placed around the community to provide a neighborhood effect as well as safety for the students who walked to schools. Rossmoor School opened in the fall of 1958. Until Weaver School was finished two years later, Rossmoor School operated double sessions. Next came Richard Henry Lee School in 1961. By now the trustees had decided to name all future schools after signers of the Declaration of Independence. Lee was followed by Benjamin Rush School in 1962, and the last Rossmoor school, Francis Hopkinson, opened in 1963.
Over the next 8 or 9 years classrooms were added at most schools to meet the needs of incoming students. One school site was still available by the late 1960s. A plan was developed and a model displayed at the Bank of America for almost a year. This future school, named after James Wilson, was designed for the latest innovations in education. By late 1971 it became obvious that the Wilson School would not be needed. The infants of the late fifties and early sixties now entered junior high schools; their older siblings attended high school, and there were no longer many pre-school children in the neighborhoods.
In existence since 1881, the Los Alamitos School District was a kindergarten through 6th grade district. Students of grades 7 through 12 attended the Anaheim Union High School District schools, namely Orangeview Junior High and Western High School, located in neighboring communities. By 1962 Oak Junior High School opened, followed in 1967 by Pine Junior High, later re-named McAuliffe Middle School. That first year, Pine Junior High accommodated the sophomore class of the soon-to-be-opened high school. Los Alamitos High School was ready in the fall of 1968, with the first class graduating in 1970. At that time the junior high school grades were 7th through 9th, and the senior high grades were 10th through 12th. All three schools were located in Los Alamitos.
In June 1979 the residents of the Los Alamitos Elementary District voted to unify along elementary district boundaries. Prior to unification, two Rossmoor schools were closed: Rush and Lee. Weaver followed about a year later when a new grade configuration was established. For elementary schools it would be kindergarten through 5th grade, for middle schools 6th through 8th, and high school would be 4 years. From the beginning Rossmoor showed a strong interest in quality education and parental involvement. This was backed up by a large presence of citizens serving on the Board of Trustees. One name most of you will recognize is that of Malcom Lucas, who later became Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.
In 1974 the never-built Wilson site was declared surplus by the school district. For many years this site had served as an unofficial community park. Residents held fundraisers to landscape the park, plant grass, shrubs, and trees. The school district agreed to assume basic maintenance. This community park was a very successful cooperative effort. Once the land was offered for sale, the voters approved an assessment to acquire the site and develop it further. In order to accomplish this, the Rossmoor Maintenance Area in effect at that time was dissolved and its functions were combined under the new County Service Area 21, which could, prior to Proposition 13, levy an assessment on property owners for the purchase and development of the park.
So now Rossmoor owned its first park, named Rossmoor Park. The assessment was levied for several years until 50% of the purchase price was met. Several state grants and federal revenue sharing were used to pay the remainder and to develop the park and add tennis courts. In the late 1980s the Rossmoor Community Services District entered into contract with the Southern California Water Company to develop two unused lots into xeriscape “drought resistant” neighborhood parks. By the late 1980s the school district had three underused school sites in Rossmoor: Lee, Weaver, and Rush. Even though all three were leased out, the income from the leases was not commensurate with the value of the land.
The Rossmoor community demanded the reopening of these elementary schools, which could only be accomplished with students from outside the district (inter-district agreements). However, not all schools would ever be needed, so one school was declared surplus. After negotiation with the school district, the Rossmoor Community Services District became interested in the Rush site, the reason being its location in southern Rossmoor and its smaller acreage. A Citizen School Site Purchasing Committee was established to study the feasibility of acquiring the site for a park. A special advisory election was held to examine community opinion on the proposal to establish an assessment district for the purchase, construction, and maintenance of the Rush site for a park. In 1993 the election was approved, and after some difficulty the purchase was accomplished with a $5 million bond issue. Not only is the site preserved for future generations, but the open space is a great recreational asset.
Annexation or Incorporation
Today Rossmoor remains an unincorporated county area, despite various proposals for annexation or incorporation. In 1957 when Rossmoor was being built, Ross Cortese proposed to incorporate 500 acres north of Garden Grove Boulevard, now the Garden Grove (22) Freeway. Residents of Los Alamitos and Rossmoor opposed incorporation and asked to study the alternatives for one year. The alternatives included annexing to Seal Beach, Garden Grove, or Long Beach (Los Angeles County), or else incorporating together with Los Alamitos, which at that time had not yet incorporated. Cortese finally decided that the residents of Rossmoor could decide the question on their own. So the first years of Rossmoor’s existence were a constant “rope pull”, pro or con, both annexation and incorporation. In the fall of 1961 homeowners got the largest tax increase in western Orange County, from $383 to $471. Incorporation had been voted down and with it went the blame that cityhood caused the big increase. Attempts to annex to Los Alamitos were proposed again in 1962, which came to a stop a year later.
Finally there was peace and quiet for a while, until 1965 when there was another annexation attempt from Los Alamitos. Meanwhile, as nobody watched the till, Seal Beach scored a large coup by annexing the Rossmoor Business Center and adjacent undeveloped land, a total of 5 9 acres. This was done with the help of the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the land owner (Judge Gittleson of school-bussing-for-integration fame), Supervisor David Baker of the 2nd District, and Seal Beach City Manager Lee Risner. Opposed to the annexation was the Rossmoor Homeowners Association and the City of Los Alamitos. The Rossmoor Homeowners Association had obtained 2,600 signatures in opposition. This is how the shopping center (and tax base) was lost; the loss is still a painful memory to the residents of Rossmoor. Even the Los Alamitos-Rossmoor Library is in the territory annexed by Seal Beach.
In 1979 Los Alamitos petitioned LAFCO to annex the northeast section of Rossmoor, the last revenue producing shopping center (now known as Rossmoor Village). Luckily that request was turned down and LAFCO ruled against future piecemeal annexation moves unless Rossmoor voters also wished to annex to any of the neighboring cities.
In the early 2000’s the RCSD commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of incorporating Rossmoor as a city or being annexed by Los Alamitos or Seal Beach. The resulting report to the Rossmoor Planning Committee in June 2006 stating the most cost effective solution for Rossmoor would be to be annexed by the city of Seal Beach. Although Rosmoor is not part of the city of Los Alamitos, it is served under the Los Alamitos “sphere of influence” and was proposed to be annexed to the city by 2007 after LAFCO reviewed another proposal.
At a May 2008 meeting, LAFCO recommended that the Rossmoor Incorporation Plan go to a vote of the community. A vote by residents on the issue of incorporation was held on November 4, 2008. The proposition for city-hood was resoundingly defeated by a vote of 72% to 28% indicating that the majority of residents desire not be incorporated as a city. Residents also voted down three separate utility tax proposals by a wide margin.
Postal delivery started on October 1, 1957, after the first hundred families moved into Rossmoor. Then, as now, Rossmoor received those services through the Los Alamitos post office and its zip code 90720. However, from 1961 when a contract branch was established at the Kress Store at the Rossmoor Business Center, until the store’s closure in the early 70s, Rossmoor had its own zip code, 90721. Lew Webb then offered his own address as a contract branch to keep the zip code alive. When he moved, Paul Erskine offered his address until there was another branch in Rossmoor, albeit only for U. S. Post Office boxes at the Rossmoor Village Center and only for a limited time until the new U.S. Post Office was completed on Reagan Street in Los Alamitos.
The last homes in the Rossmoor tract were finished in 1962 Shortly thereafter the remodeling began. After more than 55 years in existence, only a small percentage of homes have not been updated, customized, enlarged, rebuilt, or “mansionized”. This can only be explained by its great location, freeway accessibility, established neighborhoods, and a top rated school district.
Natural barriers, the Coyote Creek and San Gabriel River, prevented easy access from Rossmoor to Long Beach. Established bridges linked Garden Grove Boulevard with Seventh Street in the south and Cerritos Avenue – Spring Street in the north. Katella Avenue was not connected to Willow Street in Long Beach until 1962. In 1959, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors proposed to link Atherton Street on the Long Beach side with Bostonian Drive on the Rossmoor side. However, public sentiment did not like to see a road connection there, as it would have split Rossmoor in half and would have forced the removal of sixteen newly built Rossmoor homes. In the mid 1960s the 605, 22, and 405 freeways opened and easy access became available.
Rossmoor Community Services District
In the early 1980s the County was faced with a sizeable deficit in County Service Area 21. Rossmoor had three choices: Cut services, consolidate CSA 21 with other CSAs in the county, or form an independent CSD for Rossmoor. After considerable study by a citizens group, it was recommended that Rossmoor voters approve the formation of a Community Services District, which would be the most advantageous choice financially for Rossmoor. A special district has many of the powers of a city with the notable exception of land-use planning. After the November 1986 vote, Rossmoor Community Services District had the following powers and oversight:
1. Public recreation facilities and services
2. Street lighting
3. Installation and maintenance of median landscaping
4. Aesthetic trimming of parkway trees (This power was expanded in 1988 to include full maintenance of parkway trees.)
5. Street sweeping
6. To acquire, construct, and operate facilities for the collection, treatment, or disposal of sewage waste and storm waters
7. Collect and dispose of garbage and refuse matters
The two last mentioned powers are not in force at this time and are subject to the consent of the County of Orange.
In its first years, the CSD showed an annual budget surplus, which by 1991 increased to $531,000, as originally projected. This amount was used in the purchase of the surplus Rush School site. Rush School had been closed since 1978, but for many years had been leased to Grace Brethren Church and School.
Rossmoor is fortunate to have some very effective and strong community organizations. Since 1957, the Rossmoor Homeowners Association (RHA) has been an advocate representing community interests in annexation and incorporation issues. The association worked for the passage of our two parks, the sound wall along the freeways, replacement of the crumbling brick “signature wall” along Los Alamitos Boulevard, community standards, and more. All this and many more projects have benefited and enhanced the community.
Another strong group very much involved in the community is the Rossmoor Woman’s Club, in existence since 1958. The Friends of the Library provides strong support for the local branch Library, a county library, which serves Los Alamitos, Rossmoor, and North Seal Beach.
Rossmoor, the name coined from Ross Cortese’s first name and the land which was partly marsh (old timers remember hunting ducks there), is aging with grace. Many of the generations who grew up here have come back and are proud homeowners.
Ross Cortese died in October 1991. He left behind seven Leisure World communities, the first two in Orange County, the last in Silver Spring, Maryland. He also developed business parks, retail centers, and non-retirement housing. Rossmoor, his first single-family development, was not only the foundation of his “empire” but also the jewel in his crown.
With many thanks to Edythe Davis, Gerry Erskine, and many others who have shared information and memories with me. Other sources: Fred Bixby Ranch Company, Rancho Los Alamitos, Chamber of Commerce Minutes 1952, 1957, 1958, 1959; Grant Deeds Fred Bixby Ranch Company – Ross Cortese, Alona Marlowe Cortese; News-Enterprise 35th and 40th Anniversary editions, 1979 edition; Orange County Clerk’s Office; recently found multiple newspaper articles not yet identified editions or dates from 1957 to 1961 at the museum.