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Irvine Ranch: master-planned living

There's no shortage of attractions for foreign visitors to Orange County, but for anyone with an interest in the so-called ''new town'' concept, the Irvine Ranch is a rival to anything Disneyland can offer. Despite its bucolic name, this is like no other ranch in the world.

It is instead becoming the largest master-planned urban environment in the country, an example of what vision and plenty of money can do. The developer of these 75,000 acres of ocean-side bluffs, gentle flatlands, and mountain foothills is the Irvine Company, a privately held company that under a different name five years ago paid $337.4 million to the foundation that had owned the ranch.

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Like the Indian fable of the blind men who described an elephant based on which part of the beast they felt, the Irvine Ranch can fool a visitor. Alongside the busy San Diego Freeway, for example, field hands, mostly Mexican, move slowly along, picking strawberries, asparagus, and tomatoes. Nearby are green orchards of oranges, lemons, and grapefruit. The scent of citrus is heavy in the warm sunshine.

So you might say the Irvine Ranch is a great big farm. And it's true that some 60,000 acres of the property is given over to farming, with 14,000 acres in row crops and citrus. In fact, the ranch is California's largest grower of Valencia oranges, much enjoyed in the Far East. It's also on its way to being the state's biggest source of avocados. Irvine asparagus is so prized that much of it is flown off to Europe to grace the tables of gourmet restaurants.

But another part of the ranch is given over to industrial development, with a heavy emphasis on high-technology companies. Firms that design, make, or are involved in research and development of computers, lasers, and semiconductors find this a good place to locate. There are three other parts to the Irvine Industrial Complex: medical buildings, insurance companies, and real estate brokers.

A visitor who is not interested in agriculture or industry can immerse himself in academia. The University of California's Irvine campus is set on 1, 500 acres of ranch property. The Irvine Company donated 1,000 acres for the main campus; another 500 acres was purchased by the state for housing. Saddleback Community College will have eventually its north campus on 100 acres of ranchland, too.

Above all, perhaps, the Irvine Ranch is a place for people to live. It currently has a population of 82,000 - with another 37,000 living in what are called ''window areas,'' residential developments on land that was formerly part of the ranch. About one-third of the people who live on the ranch work on it.In fact, one reason industry is attracted to the Irvine complex is that the ranch offers a quality of life that helps attract good employees. What the ranch doesn't have, however, is low- or moderate-priced housing.

Currently the average new home on the Irvine Ranch sells for more than $100, 000, and that's a production model. In early August, 18 homes went on sale for $ 120,000, and the management company had to stop taking applications. People were camping outside its offices; at last count there were 50 on the waiting list for 1,200-square-foot bungalows.

Along with Irvine Ranch housing goes, of course, schools, tennis courts, churches, golf courses, swimming pools, and shopping of every variety. There are also hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and just about every other recreational, cultural, and social amenity.

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In response to mounting community curiosity about the ranch, the new owners disclosed their gross a year after taking over. It was $225 million, and that didn't include any land sales. A company spokesman says sales growth has been ''very, very healthy.'' Outsiders estimate the Irvine Ranch to be worth $1 billion these days.

That's not to say that the Irvine Company doesn't have its share of battles. For a dozen years, efforts to put up some resort hotels and commercial areas along another stretch of oceanfront have proved fruitless. ''The approval process is very difficult; we've been sued and, after all this time, we're not out of the woods yet,'' says the official.

Still, city officials from as far away as Japan, Australia, and Europe who come to ''ooh and aah'' at what's going on here remain impressed. As company spokesman Martin A. Brower likes to point out, ''It's the most successful master-planned development in the entire US, and it's all completely in the private sector.''

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