Note: in 1986 a 10-part video series on the history of Los Alamitos was compiled and necessarily the history of Rossmoor was included in parts 7 and 8. These two 30-minute Rossmoor-centric segments can be seen in their entirety here.
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 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 the 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.
The Rossmoor 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. Shortly after the residents moved in, the Rossmoor Homeowners Association was formed to strengthen the community’s voice.
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 school. 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 was 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 preschool 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 renamed 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. Elementary schools would now cover kindergarten through 5th grade, middle schools 6th through 8th, and the high school would be 4 years covering 9th through 12th.
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 some of you will recognize is Malcolm 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, and 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 to develop the park and add tennis courts.
By the early 1980s, our County Service Area 21 had developed some financial issues leaving Rossmoor with three choices: reduce the park & recreation services offered, consolidate CSA 21 with other CSAs in the county, or form an independent Community Services District (CSD) for Rossmoor.
After considerable study by a citizens group led by the RHA, it was recommended that the County Board of Supervisors adopt an order to dissolve CSA 21 and create the Rossmoor CSD, as this was the most advantageous financial choice for Rossmoor.
The order to to form the CSD for Rossmoor and concurrently dissolve the Rossmoor CSA 21, to establish that the boundaries of Rossmoor CSD would be the entire territory of the unincorporated Rossmoor Community, that the CSD would be the successor agency to the Rossmoor CSA 21 and take over the assets and assume all liabilities and obligations of the Rossmoor CSA 21, and to elect a five member Board of Directors for CSD to watch over the resident’s tax dollars which fund the district and provide the vision for the district was approved by the County Board of Supervisors on June 25, 1986.
To go into place, then the voters of Rossmoor has to approve the creation of the new CSD, which they did in the November 1986 election. The Rossmoor Community Services District went into place January 1, 1987. (More on the CSD below)
Shortly after its formation, the Rossmoor Community Services District entered into a contract with the Southern California Water Company (now Golden State Water Company) to develop two unused lots in Rossmoor into xeriscape “drought-resistant” neighborhood parks. These two parks, Kempton Park (corner of Kempton and Silver Fox) and Foster Park (12590 Foster Road) are still enjoyed by residents today.
In this same late 80’s timeframe, the Los Alamitos Unified 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 Rossmoor into 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 (now The Shops at Rossmoor) and adjacent undeveloped land, a total of 59 acres. This was done with the help of the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the landowner (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 were the Rossmoor Homeowners Association and the City of Los Alamitos. The Rossmoor Homeowners Association had obtained 2,600 signatures in opposition; however, since the area being annexed had been skillfully drawn to exclude any residents, no vote was necessary to have the land annexed into Seal Beach. This is how the Rossmoor 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 (Local Agency Formation Commission) 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 2000s, the Rossmoor CSD 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 stated the most cost-effective solution for Rossmoor would be to be annexed by the city of Seal Beach. Although Rossmoor is not part of the city of Los Alamitos, it is included 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 cityhood was resoundingly defeated by a vote of 72% to 28% indicating that the majority of residents desire not to 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, like 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 65 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 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.
As an unincorporated area within the County of Orange, we do not have a city council or town leadership board to create ordinances, provide public safety services, public works (infrastructure, building permits, etc.), neighborhood preservation (formerly code enforcement), and neighborhood services like garbage collection.
The Rossmoor CSD is charged with maintaining our parks & recreation and managing the street sweeping contract.
This brings up the frequently asked question:
Since we do not have an elected city council or mayor, who does govern us?
The simple answer is the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the Supervisor from the 1st District* is our representative to this Board.
Since the county’s inception, Rossmoor had been part of the 2nd Supervisorial District. Here’s the list of our past supervisors:
- Aug 5, 1889 – Jacob Ross, Jr.
- Jan 1891 – Joseph W. Hawkins
- Jan 3, 1899 – R Edwin Larter
- Jan 5, 1903 – Edwin Fulsome
- Jan. 2, 1907 – George W. Moore
- Aug 17, 1909 – Tom Talbert
- Jan 4, 1927 – John C. Mitchell
- Jan 6, 1939 – Willis Warner
- Jan 8, 1963 – Dave Baker
- Jan 6, 1975 – Laurence Schmidt
- Jan 8, 1979 – Harriett Weider
- Jan 1995 – Jim Silva
- Dec 5, 2006 – John Moorlach
- Jan 5, 2015 – Michelle Steele
- Mar 26, 2021 – Katrina Foley
In January 2022, Rossmoor was moved from the 2nd Supervisorial District to the 1st Supervisorial District as part of the census reapportionment process. For at least the next 10 years, we will be part of District #1.
- January 6, 2022 – Andrew Do
Then things got more complex…
The Rossmoor Community Services District
A special district can have many of the powers of a city with the notable exception of land-use planning. After the County Board of Supervisor’s Order and the November 1986 voter approval, on January 1, 1987, the 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
All other “powers” like public safety (police, fire, animal care), public works (road, sidewalks, permitting, inspections), stormwater, and waste collection are the responsibility of and managed by 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, the replacement of the crumbling brick “signature wall” along Los Alamitos Boulevard, and more. All this, the community’s Neighborhood Watch program, Christmas Lights Celebration, Rossmoor Graduation Parade and many more projects have benefited and enhanced the community. The RHA works to unify and build neighborhood relationships and strengthen the community fiber.
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.
The Rossmoor Name & Ross Cortese
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.
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; multiple newspaper articles not yet identified editions or dates from 1957 to 1961 at the Los Alamitos museum.