If there's a man who personifies Highlands Ranch, it's Steve Ormiston. The Shea Homes Colorado vice president of planning has been working on the community, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in June, since day one, starting in 1978, when he worked on its initial plans and entitlement documents.

Part of the Highlands Ranch story during the past 25 years is about core talent staying intact while remaining open to new ideas—even through a company acquisition. In 1997, Shea Homes bought the Mission Viejo Co. and all of its land holdings, including Highlands Ranch. Not only did Shea keep Ormiston, but it held onto about 25 core Highlands Ranch people working in every key business area—from planning and development to sales and marketing.

Instead of causing tension or a dearth of creativity from the old guard, the acquisition spurred inspiration. Mission Viejo had been a traditional company with a hierarchical organizational chart; Shea, on the other hand, had a flat structure, which energized the already knowledgeable team. “It allowed those that had developed various skills to collaborate with others to bring things forward,” says Ormiston.

The Mission Viejo philosophy emphasized larger-scale, homogeneous neighborhoods, whereas the Shea philosophy is to create distinct and diverse neighborhoods. Today, products run the gamut from single-family detached and custom homes to urban brownstones and condominiums. Themes include bungalows, farmhouses, cottages, mountain cottages, prairie homes, Italian hillside, traditional Americana, and Colorado mining.

That's not to say Mission Viejo didn't do things right. Using Ian McHarg's book Design With Nature as a driving inspiration, Mission Viejo planned with inevitable change in mind. Back in 1978, broad parameters were set to allow the community to evolve while maintaining its original identity. McHarg espouses using clues from nature to help design development. Not only were flood plains saved for open space, but steep slopes leading up to them were left untouched as well, leaving prime space for parks and trails that the original planners knew would eventually be built. “We were very intentional about having open space help define the neighborhoods and their character,” says Ormiston. “It's almost as if you have a broad canvas on which over time you add strokes.”

Similarly, marketing Highlands Ranch has evolved with the times while still capitalizing on community roots. It has been a place where residents can “live, work, and play,” as Ormiston says; that's a concept that new-home marketers love to tout these days, and so the trend plays to Highlands Ranch's strengths. About 1,200 businesses call Highlands Ranch home, employing 7,000 people, many of which (like Ormiston) live in the community. A 900-acre business park has lured big names, such as Lucent Technologies and Qwest Communications.

The community has also been successful in establishing customers for life—a concept all builders covet these days. Historically, about 50 percent of its new home sales have come from current residents. Ormiston himself “moved up” once from his 1982 purchase, buying again in 1987.

A Snapshot of Highlands Ranch, Douglas County, Colo.

  • Acreage: 22,000
  • Homes at build out: 61,700
  • Homes completed: 30,000+
  • Approx. completion date: 2010
  • First occupancy: 1981
  • Breakdown: 61% non-urban (open space, etc.), 31% residential, 8% commercial