RANCHO SANTA FE — In the early 1920s, Rancho Santa Fe was promoted as a place with all the urban conveniences, plus rural freedom, rich in romantic heritage of Spain, with room to grow families and orchards of fruit, with protective restrictions on architecture and landscaping as in the most exclusive metropolitan neighborhoods.
About 80 years later, nothing much has changed.
That is one of the reasons this rural little enclave in the middle of civilization is so unique.
The founders who drafted its Protective Covenant intended to protect property owners’ investments and preserve the rural atmosphere of the area. It still works.
“I believe that people understand the rules apply to everyone. I believe it is fair and we treat everyone the same,” said Peter Smith, Association manager. “We stick to the rules. We’ve been at it a long time. I believe we are the oldest HOA still operating in the state.”
The history of the housing development began after the Rancho Santa Fe Rail Road Company planted acres of eucalyptus trees for railroad ties and learning too late the wood was too soft. Undaunted, the company turned the property in estate ranches, each with its own deed restrictions.
In 1927 when the idea of homeowner association began to become into focus, the way housing developments were managed changed.
The developers went back to property owners asking them to become part of the HOA and to abide by uniform rules. Most agreed, but some did not.
“About 15 properties out of 1,800 are still not in the HOA,” Smith said. These properties are not clustered in one area, but scattered throughout the Covenant.
“When someone asks, ‘why do these (Covenant) rules apply to me and not my neighbor,’ it is probably because the original owners opted out of joining the HOA,” he said.
The Rancho Santa Fe Protective Covenant was adopted in February 1928. Barton Millard was the Association’s first president. Lilian Rice, principle architect for the project, was the chair of the first Art Jury.
The Art Jury in Rancho Santa Fe, to this day, still reviews every proposed development or significant change in a property and gives its approval or not.
A decision by the Art Jury was once challenged by a homeowner who was unsuccessful in his litigation.
“The court ruled that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Smith said.
The eye that decides the beauty belongs to the community and the Art Jury, the court decided.
The major goal of the Art Jury is preserve the rural character of Rancho Santa Fe. Before a project reaches the Association board, it must first be approved by the Art Jury. If the project is deemed worthy and follows all the rules, the developer or prospective homeowner may ask for the approval of surrounding neighbors.
That done, the project may be seen by the Association board. If the board approves the project, it may be taken to the county for another round of approvals before the project is finally approved. Somehow the process has worked for nearly a century.
If a property owner wants to join the Covenant, it is possible, but it’s not an easy process.
The request must go through a lengthy process and then be approved by the entire community.
Membership has its advantages. It gives property owners the right to join the exclusive golf course and club, send their children to phenomenal schools, board their horses on their own property, join the riding club, explore a world class trail system and take part in having a say about how this close knit community is run.
Smith has been the manager of the HOA for the past 15 years and before that managed the golf club for five years.
“My predecessor said the manger’s job was like having 5,000 chiefs and one Indian. I think I would disagree,” Smith said.
His role is pretty much that of a city manager.
Because Rancho Santa Fe was set up to eventually turn into a city, it is run the same way with planning, building and finance departments.
“The Covenant is a pretty good sized business,” he said.
It has 135 employees including those at the golf club, the landscaping crew, the patrol and the staff inside the headquarters of the Association. It has a $15 million budget.
The decisions are made by a board elected by the membership called the Association.
“My job is to make sure the Association have all the facts,” he said.
“Rancho Santa Fe is not for everyone. It’s rural, more secluded and private. It has phenomenal schools, a place for people‘s horses and trails and of course the weather.”