But recently, they’ve begun to re-emerge on the public stage.
On Monday, Mitt Romney was a guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, slamming President Obama’s handling of the current standoff with Congress. And Ann Romney has been popping up all over as she promotes her best-selling cookbook to raise money for medical research.
On Friday, their private life will again spill into the public square when the California Coastal Commission takes up a challenge to their plans to tear down the La Jolla beachfront home they purchased on Dunemere Drive for $12 million in 2008.
They intend to replace the home, once owned by the founder of Jack in the Box and a mayor of San Diego, with an 11,000-square-foot mansion, including that infamous car elevator. The main floor will have 4,681 square feet, the second floor 1,790, and the subterranean portion 4,591.
The San Diego Planning Commission unanimously approved the project in June, but in July, a former Dunemere Drive neighbor of the Romneys filed an appeal with the California Coastal Commission, which has final say.
Anthony Ciani, an architect who built and owned the home that is kitty-corner to the Romneys' property on Dunemere, said the Romneys wrongly claimed to own the beach in front of their home, thus inflating their lot size from 12,000 to 18,000 square feet in order to build a home that is about 1,000 square feet larger than the city would normally allow.
“If developers and wealthy property owners can hire a surveyor that shows they own the public beach and get a permit to capitalize on that land to build a bigger house than you normally would, it’s going to become, ‘Oh, Mitt Romney did it,’” said Ciani. “It becomes a precedent. It’s not just La Jolla. It’s all of California’s beaches that have private property next to them.”
Ciani, who is known in La Jolla for his commitment to preserving beach access, also said the Romneys have privatized a public walkway along the north side of their home that runs from the street to the beach. Years ago, as a paperboy and lifeguard, Ciani said, he freely used the concrete steps.
In a nearly 300-page report, the Coastal Commission’s San Diego staff rebuffed Ciani’s objections and has recommended that the commission approve the project when it meets Friday in Mission Valley.
The Romneys have not explicitly addressed Ciani’s accusations.
In June, Ann Romney made a surprise appearance before the San Diego City Council to complain about a delay in the project related to a problem with the city’s public notice process. And earlier this month, she told a San Diego TV station while promoting her cookbook that “Everything is fine…It’s always frustrating to get a building permit on the ocean. But it’s good.”
"Obviously, they are disappointed," said their San Diego attorney, Matthew Peterson, who has tangled previously with Ciani over other projects. "They want to have a house where they can have their kids and grandkids. They could have built a place 1,500 square feet bigger -- all the way out to the seawall, but they wanted to be sensitive to the neighborhood."
Petersen dismissed Ciani’s complaints, and Ciani, in harsh terms.
“He’s well-known in La Jolla for being an obstructionist who causes issues,” said Peterson. “He’s misinformed and he’s obviously got other motivations, but who knows what?”
“That is almost laughable,” said Ciani, who moved to Pacific Grove near Carmel last year after selling his Dunemere home for $3.5 million. (Some Romney supporters wondered why he has returned to fight a project in a neighborhood he no longer calls home, but Ciani said he and his wife own a historic cottage less than a mile away, in La Jolla Village.)
Peterson said the Romneys not only own the sand in front of their home up to the mean high tide line, but have agreed, as the Coastal Commission requires, to dedicate the approximately 6,000 square feet of beach to the public in exchange for their building permit.
“It’s a public beach,” said Peterson. “The public will use the space in perpetuity.’
As for the walkway that Ciani used as a boy, said Peterson, the Romneys and their next-door neighbor to the north own the short passageway. Though previous owners allowed the public to use it, it has been locked for decades. Also, he said, there are multiple other beach access points nearby.
Just as they were divided about Romney and his political prospects last year, neighbors are divided over the project.
In September, three of the Romneys’ current neighbors on Dunemere Drive wrote letters to the San Diego Planning Department, noting their concerns that the project was “not consistent with the character of the street,” “disproportionately larger than any other house on Dunemere Drive” and objecting to the “scope and size” of the project.
The median size of homes in the neighborhood, according to the city, is 2,500 square feet. But Coastal Commission staff, while acknowledging the home will be the third-largest in the area, said it would not alter the character of the neighborhood or impede views, since most of its bulk will be either underground or hidden from public view.
Some neighbors, still a little sore about last year’s election results, are angry that the Romneys are being challenged. They think the motivation is political.
“The neighbors whose letters you mentioned didn’t vote for Gov. Romney and in fact represent the radical left wing,” said David Sear, a financial adviser who lives around the corner from Dunemere and was a Romney bundler in 2012. “When I am in town, I surf everyday in front of the Romney house and I have zero concern about privatization.”
“The Romneys are a positive, successful family with great values,” said his wife, Cristina Sear. “I am really happy they’re going to stay and invest in our neighborhood and community.”