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Rancho Santa Fe Dispute Turns Playing Fields Into Battleground

Times Staff Writer

There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t yelled at the neighborhood kids and ordered them to go play in someone else’s yard. Now Rancho Santa Fe homeowners are doing the same, but on a larger scale that has the serene estate community in a turmoil.

At issue is the expensive turf where Rancho Santa Fe youth soccer and baseball teams have practiced and played for a decade or more.

But, as the offspring of young, upwardly mobile Ranch residents multiplied, the pleasant spring and fall contests have grown in size, noise and congestion that nearby residents feel is eroding their quality of life and eradicating the reasons they chose their upscale addresses along Rambla de las Flores, Los Morros and La Orilla.

The confrontation began when the Rancho Santa Fe Assn. board purchased 17.5 acres last year for $1.2 million and made plans to expand the sports fields into the new area. As the expansion plans took shape, so did the opposition.

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Melodie and Jim Rice are the neighbors most affected by the sports field plan because their home is next to the newly acquired property.

Playing for Years

“They’ve been playing on Aardema Field for years, and our children played there,” Melodie Rice said. “We have no problem with that. It’s the expansion that bothers us. They would be playing in our front yard. There are two of the fields that are only 40 feet from our place.” Aardema Field, where the soccer season is now in full tilt, encompasses nine of the 17.5 acres purchased by the association.

“That’s a fine field they have now, and I can’t understand why they can’t continue there. We’ve never been opposed to having those fields on Aardema,” she said.

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But other neighbors are less satisfied with the growing popularity of Aardema and nearby Richardson Field, where Little Leaguers play and soccer teams practice.

Joel Broida, who is building a home across the road from the playing fields, feels that neighborhood opinion favors moving the sports complex elsewhere, although the main point of neighborhood protest is the expansion--nearly doubling the sports field area and the number of playing fields.

“If the soccer people had not been so greedy and wanted to do so much more, I doubt if this whole issue would have come up,” Broida said.

Since taking up the cudgel against the expansion, Broida has hired a lawyer who, in turn, discovered that the Rancho Santa Fe covenant zoning on the sports field property allows only residential, agricultural or grazing uses, and not athletic activities. To change the fields’ local zoning requires approval of two-thirds of the landowners within 500 feet of property, which Broida is certain would be impossible to get.

“There are about 30 of us, and I doubt that more than half a dozen would consent,” he said. “The majority of them don’t want anything there at all.”

But, Broida said, there is a solution to the problem. Put the playing fields somewhere else and sell the 17.5 acres at a profit.

“I have talked to an experienced broker, who tells me that he could sell the property for $1.5 million within 24 hours,” he said. That is a $300,000 profit, he pointed out.

Broida also has found three sites, one within the Rancho Santa Fe covenant boundaries and two nearby, which “would be very suitable for the playing fields, and without the problems of the present site.”

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Dick Scuba, a former Rancho Santa Fe Assn. board member, said he looked for six years or so without success to find a replacement for the Aardema-Richardson fields before the board decided to expand the existing site.

‘Desire of the Neighbors’

“If we can’t expand playing fields in an area where they have been accepted for years, how can we expect to find another site without a lot more problems?” Scuba asked.

The association board, already midway through steps to obtain a county major use permit for the playing fields, halted the process recently and decided to scale down their design.

Association Manager Walt Ekard said the new plans, although not yet drawn, “will be reduced in intensity to more appropriately reflect the desire of the neighbors.” The reduction would be “significant,” he said.

The association’s attorney is still reviewing the problem of covenant zoning on the property, Ekard said, and is less concerned about the property that has been used for athletic fields for a considerable time--Aardema for 10 years, Richardson for 25--than about the 8.5 acres that has been vacant.

The clash over the athletic fields brought a spate of letters to the local newspaper, the Rancho Santa Fe Review, which clearly sided with the community’s youth and against the “narrow-minded, provincial mentality of several small groups of neighborhood dissidents,” as one writer labeled the opponents.

Jim Ashcraft, who has taken on the thankless task of trying to find an acceptable middle ground that will satisfy neighbors and allow the Ranch youth to continue to use the existing playing fields, sighed as he summed up his efforts:

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“Whenever I feel I have reached agreement with one group, someone else comes up with another demand.”

Ashcraft believes the brouhaha over the playing fields has mushroomed out of proportion to the problems.

He acknowledges that the number of young players is increasing and the number of soccer teams has grown to 25. Five of those teams now have no place to practice, Ashcraft said, which is one reason for the plans to expand.

The space situation has become more acute since soccer teams at neighboring Fairbanks Ranch were forced off a field they had been using when the school district learned that it must acquire a county use permit and shoulder the liability if it allows sports groups to use the future school site.

Ekard said the Rancho Santa Fe Assn. leaders plan to move ahead with the project, but slowly and carefully.

“We hope to find a middle road that everyone can live with,” he said, “and to avoid lawsuits.”


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