If the terms are right, residents of this exclusive northern San Diego County community, where thick stands of eucalyptus trees frame lush golfing greens and an "average" home can fetch $500,000, may try to hitch a ride on the incorporation bandwagon being piloted by two of their coastal neighbors.
"This is only the exploratory stage, but we think it's worth our while to take a look at what kind of advantages the ranch would enjoy under cityhood," said Lewis W. Reich, president of the Rancho Santa Fe Assn. board of directors.
"There are some problems here--particularly traffic and law enforcement--that are only getting worse, and incorporation might be one way of getting them solved."
The idea, Reich said, is not to incorporate as the city of Rancho Santa Fe, an impossibility considering the posh community's lack of tax-generating businesses. Instead, its leaders may ask that their hamlet of about 1,700 be included in either Solana Beach or Encinitas, where movements to incorporate are afoot.
The proposal, however, is not likely to get a shred of community support if it means sacrificing the Rancho Santa Fe protective covenant, a collection of strict rules adopted in 1927 and designed to maintain the prized rural character of the ranch, located 25 miles north of San Diego City Hall and five miles east of Del Mar.
The covenant--which regulates everything from the type of permissible landscaping to a home's exterior color scheme and until 1973 included racial residential restrictions--is administered by the seven-member association, essentially a homeowners group. The document's rules are theoretically enforced by a provision that gives the association the right to confiscate the property of any violator.
"We will never surrender the covenant," Reich said. "We have worked hard to maintain the architectural style and high quality of our homes, our large-sized lots and the overall integrity of Rancho Santa Fe. We don't intend to lose that."
Reich believes that the ranch can keep the covenant--and still become part of an incorporated city. Several communities in Los Angeles, he said, have successfully remained stringently regulated neighborhoods within parent cities with more lenient codes.
Whether the ranch joins Solana Beach or Encinitas in incorporation depends, in part, on whether either city will have it--and can support it. Jack Moore, a leader of Citizens Intending to Incorporate in Solana Beach, said his group has not been approached by Rancho Santa Fe and therefore has not considered the possibility of a joint incorporation effort.
"There's no doubt in my mind that cityhood is financially feasible for Solana Beach--Solana Beach alone," Moore said. "I've got no idea whether or not we could afford to bring the ranch along too."
As for Encinitas, where residents are considering various city boundaries that may include Leucadia and even Cardiff, at least one community leader thinks including Rancho Santa Fe might jeopardize the whole incorporation drive.
"If there is an element in Rancho Santa Fe that is opposed to incorporation--and there may well be--then they could fund a movement to kill the whole thing," said Fred Schreiber, president of the San Dieguito Town Council. "Or, on the other hand, the ranch could be thrown into a successful incorporation vote and end up part of something that a lot of people there oppose. I'd say it would be in their best interest to wait until we incorporate and then annex themselves in."
Frustrated by Traffic
The ranch's interest in incorporation stems largely from the residents' frustration with the traffic that clogs the winding, tree-lined roadways used as east-west commuter paths through their community.
Although patrolled by a six-officer private security force as well as by San Diego County sheriff's deputies, the ranch "desperately needs someone to ticket and stop the people who speed on our narrow, dangerous roads," Reich said. Cityhood would bring, among other services, a police force to catch the offenders.
Hooking up with an incorporation drive also is appealing because of the increased local representation it would bring. The county Board of Supervisors is located a long way away and "has a lot of constituents and a lot of problems to think about," said association director Ed Foss. "With a city body, we'd have a bit more influence."
Finally, association directors are concerned that Rancho Santa Fe could become marooned in a sea of incorporated communities should Solana Beach and Encinitas succeed in their march toward cityhood.
"We met with County Supervisors (Brian) Bilbray and (George) Bailey and they discussed . . . the prospect that we could become a little island out here," Foss said. While on its face that might not be a problem, it could make it more difficult for the ranch to join an incorporated neighbor on favorable terms in the future.
Waiting Seems Dangerous
"They'd probably let us in but it would definitely be on their terms," Reich said. "I just don't think waiting would leave us in a good bargaining position."
There are those in the ranch who opposed the prospect of incorporation when it was raised several times in the past and who oppose it today. They point to the impressive services already available in their community and wonder how cityhood could improve the quality of life.
In addition to the private security force, the ranch has for years had its own 911 emergency telephone number, which brings immediate response from the village's Fire Department, security patrol and fully equipped paramedics. A private community services district operates its sewer system and, according to many residents, does a fine job.
These government extras cost money, and ranch residents pay for them through association assessments and through various property tax levies and fees. But money is not a problem for those who dwell in the spacious homes hidden behind fancy gateposts, walls, hedges and citrus groves. So at least one attraction of cityhood--cheaper and better services--doesn't appear to mean much here.
For the moment, directors are merely looking at the idea and tracking down more information. Later this month, they plan to meet with a representative from the Local Agency Formation Commission, a state agency organized at the county level that approves all incorporation applications.
The big question is whether the ranch could successfully retain its identity--and the historic covenant--while sharing in the benefits of cityhood, Reich said.
Jane Merrill, executive director of formation commission, said she is "unfamiliar with a situation like this" and therefore not sure whether the covenant's exclusive authority over the ranch could be maintained under incorporation.