Community Profile

History of Capistrano Bay

Beach Road began life in 1928, when much of Southern California was booming. As houses sprung up all over Los Angeles and investors snapped up Wilshire Blvd land, Edward Doheny, Jr., a member of the Southern California’s pioneering Doheny family subdivided the stretch of beachfront property he owned south of Dana Point.

Doheny built four handsome Mission Revival-style houses (all still standing today) and the similarly designed Beachcombers Club at the head of the new road. His plans were to build more houses on Beach Road and sell lots to prospective home builders, envisioning an unspoiled, peaceful beachfront community, far removed from Los Angeles’ urban sprawl, yet within a half-day’s driving distance. In those days, it was a several hour drive in a Model A from downtown LA to Capistrano Beach, the vast majority of South Coast being open, rolling hills and ranch land.

Doheny, alas, was not to realize his dream. The Great Depression began, limiting the Doheny family’s development resources, and soon after, Edward was tragically murdered. Unwilling or unable to continue to invest in their beachfront land, the Doheny’s simply walked away from it, allowing the bank to take over ownership.

The following years were quiet on Beach Road, with community life focused on the Beachcombers Club, whose members included the few residents of Beach Road and some from the scattering of houses up on the Palisades. At this time, houses existed only north of the turnaround.

During the war years, after the return to prosperity, LA’s Harvey family, owners of Harvey Aluminum, bought the Doheny property from the bank, the Beachcombers Club (which it leased to private operators), many Beach Road lots, the water company that supplied the community, and a great deal of land in the Palisades. The Harvey’s sold individual lots to people looking for an idyllic second or retirement home. One boom time for Beach Road came in the early 50’s, during which time residents Wayne Schafer and Judge James Reese and wife settled here.

“There wasn’t much here when we came in ’51, explained Gwen Reese, “the Schafer house (although not yet occupied), the Doheny houses, the water company at the end of the road. We didn’t have sewers or gas.” In those days, lots sold for about $5,000. Enterprising sorts like Jack McManus could buy a lot and build their own house for $30,000 on Beach Road.

In the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s, the community’s interests were shouldered by a homeowners’ association, the Capistrano Beach Road Association (CBRA), which although without real powers, provided a means for residents to band together. As the Beach Road community developed, it became clear that a stronger organization was needed to champion those interests requiring legal jurisdiction.

On December 31, 1959, at the behest of the association, the self-governing Capistrano Bay Community Services District (CBD) was incorporated, giving it authority to assess the community through taxes to effectively manage the Beach Road infrastructure. The CBRA has co-existed alongside the CBD and to this day, maintains a healthy presence in the community on social and aesthetic issues.

Around this time, there was bustling economic activity in and around Capistrano Beach. The Harvey family opted to sell their entire holding to developers Hadley-Cherry, who continued to sell individual lots to homebuilders. With the I-5 freeway completed, Capistrano Beach was now only about 75 minutes from LA.

According to Wayne Schafer, “suddenly we had LA money,” adding that “Capistrano Beach was an accessible beach that was comparatively inexpensive and property really began to move, and the surfing scene was exploding, fueling interest in beach-oriented living.

Perhaps the preeminent center of Southern California’s surfing community in the late ‘50’s and ‘60’s was Poche, the section of beach beyond the south end of Beach Road. The “Poche” railroad sign, heralding the railroad siding (a sort of train passing lane) that once fronted that part of the beach, has been gone for more than 20 years, but the name remains.

So do stories of those days, when Poche was the unofficial social club, think tank and surf spot for legendary big-wave surfers Walter, (resident today) and Phil “Flippy” Hoffman, filmmaker Bruce Brown, surfboard foam inventor Gordon “Grubby” Clark (a former turnaround resident), world-famous surfer and surfboard designer Hobie Alter (for many years a resident) and Surfer Magazine editor Pat McNulty (whose widow Mary still owns property on Beach Road). In fact, it was right at Poche that Hobie Alter and pals spent countless hours testing, redesigning and perfecting the Hobie Cat, which would become one of the world’s most popular sport sailboats. Some of the next generation of this surfing cabal went on to achieve fame of their own, starting with world champion Joyce Hoffman in the ‘60’s and continuing with former touring pros Brian McNulty and his brothers Terence and Joe.

The next Beach Road boom came as a result of the imposition of the state-wide limitations on the ability to own beach-front property enacted by the newly-created Coastal Commission in the ‘70’s. Consequently, houses increased tremendously in value and once plentiful vacant lots became precious commodities.

Summers saw a steady increase in the number of renters, especially from LA, Arizona and Utah seeking sun and cooling beach breezes. Residents became more active in both the CBRA and CBD affairs, successfully making Beach Road safer and more attractive. On January 1, 1989, after 61 years as part of unincorporated Orange County, Capistrano Beach residents voted to become part of the newly expanded city of Dana Point, giving Capistrano Bay better access to local services.

Now well into the new millennium, the community continues to see more and more of the quaint “beach houses” and cottages of past years being replaced by significantly larger and more modern homes complemented by an investment in a completely resurfaced road in 2003. The community then turned its attention to extensively renovating the Beach Road entrance, guard house and parking area, completed in 2011. Residents have succeeded in creating a model beachfront community that offers physical beauty, neighborly camaraderie and an exceptional quality of life.