Rancho Santa Fe Rejects Cityhood : Residents of Wealthy North County Enclave Vote Against Incorporation

Times Staff Writer

Opting to stay with the community status quo, voters in Rancho Santa Fe on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected an incorporation proposal that sought to usher in a new era of home rule for the wealthy enclave.

Despite a two-year effort by backers of cityhood, 1,520 of the voters opposed the incorporation measure, while 651 favored the idea.

More than two-thirds of the community’s registered voters turned out for the hotly debated election, which featured well-financed campaigns by both backers and opponents of the controversial proposal.

The election result came as little surprise to boosters of home rule. In recent days, a newspaper poll indicated that a wide majority of residents in the exclusive community favored remaining an unincorporated part of the county.

In particular, residents seemed disturbed because the proposed city boundaries were wider than many preferred, encompassing areas that are not governed by the hamlet’s protective covenant, a strict set of rules adopted in 1927 to maintain the town’s exclusive ambiance and visual appeal.


“There’s not any question that, had it not been for that particular issue, we would have breezed through,” said Bill Reich, a cityhood supporter. “That issue killed it.”

Boundaries Expanded

Although incorporation supporters sought to have the boundaries encompass only the region covered by the covenant, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) approved a key proposal in December that included roughly two square miles more than civic leaders originally wanted within the new municipality.

The agency, which decides boundary issues and must approve all bids for incorporation, also approved a buffer of land around Rancho Santa Fe that would serve as a target for eventual annexation. This so-called “sphere of influence” included other wealthy communities such as Fairbanks Ranch and Whispering Palms, which had lobbied unsuccessfully to be included in the new city.

Cityhood opponents raised the specter that such neighborhoods would elbow their way into Rancho Santa Fe through the annexation process, meaning residents living under the covenant could find themselves in the minority, with “outsiders” calling the shots.

“I think the basic reason for all the opposition is that people want to keep things in Rancho Santa Fe the way they are,” said Jack Mulligan, a leader of the cityhood opposition. “They don’t want anything to change.”

Indeed, under the protective covenant, residents of the posh community have enjoyed a good life.

The covenant, which at one time included racial residential restrictions, is administered by the Rancho Santa Fe Assn., a homeowners group that has a $1-million annual budget and provides a security force and assorted other public services. Members of the covenant pay fees entitling them to services and privileges like belonging to the golf and tennis clubs.

Some homeowners feared that cityhood would require the extension of covenant privileges to hundreds of new residents, putting a strain on recreation facilities such as the community’s neatly manicured, private golf course. And if covenant privileges were not offered to all city dwellers, these residents worried, it could create a two-tiered society and generate friction within the community.

But supporters of cityhood maintained that incorporation would leave the covenant unfettered while giving the community several benefits. They argued that local government was the best weapon Rancho Santa Fe could wield in its battle to fight off encroaching high-density development and protect the character of its peaceful residential neighborhoods.

Moreover, cityhood backers maintained that home rule would enable the town to improve traffic enforcement, strengthen protection provided by the Sheriff’s Department and enhance the provision of other public services. They also said that incorporation might be the only way to block county plans to widen several roadways through the heart of the quaint village, a cluster of small shops and restaurants under a canopy of eucalyptus trees.

Financial Merits Questioned

Opponents, however, groused that cityhood would simply dilute the covenant, the very document that had steered the community on a prosperous course for more than six decades, dictating everything from the color of homes and other architectural features to the makeup and maintenance of gardens.

In addition, incorporation foes have questioned the financial viability of the proposal. Although dominated by million-dollar estates on expansive lots, the community has few businesses and generates little sales tax revenue.

A new state law increased the portion of state taxes on cigarettes, motor vehicles and gasoline that Rancho Santa Fe would receive if it incorporated, improving the long-range financial picture significantly. With the new law in place, LAFCO staff analysts concluded that the city could stay fiscally afloat, predicting it would realize a budget surplus of 12% after its first full year of operation.

But opponents of cityhood questioned that analysis, pointing in particular to the fact that LAFCO made an mistake in arithmetic in figuring the proposed budget for Rancho Santa Fe. Under the correct calculation, the city would realize a surplus of 9.8%.

Cityhood supporters say such arguments are a smoke screen, complaining that opponents have used misinformation about the effects of incorporation to strike a nerve among the community’s voters.

“There’s just a tremendous amount of resistance to change,” said Ed Foss, a cityhood supporter. “People figure it’s been going swell for 60 years and why change. But they don’t realize all the changes that have occured in just the last few years, with traffic and other problems.”

Promoters of incorporation worked long and hard toward the election. Discussions on the town’s potential as a self-sufficient municipality date to April, 1985. Soon after, a consultant’s report on the fiscal feasibility of cityhood was commissioned, and a special task force called SCOHR (Study Committee on Home Rule) was formed in March, 1986, to win support for home rule.

Backers sent out several mailers in the weeks before the election and redoubled their efforts after a newspaper poll appeared last week showing 70% of the residents opposed to incorporation. On election day, supporters manned a phone bank in hopes of getting out the vote.

Opponents of cityhood, some of them erstwhile supporters of the idea who broke ranks after the boundary flap arose, also campaigned aggressively during the final days of the battle, dispatching a half dozen mailers to get their views across to the community’s more than 3,000 registered voters.

If Rancho Santa Fe had incorporated, it would have been the county’s 19th city--and the smallest with just under 5,000 residents. It also would have been the third city to incorporate in fast-growing North County in a year’s time. Solana Beach and Encinitas each incorporated with overwhelming voter support in June.