Jeffery DeMarco’s dream of turning his 4-acre estate into the world’s most extensive “fragrance garden” has sparked Rancho Santa Fe’s own version of the War of the Roses.
The owner of a company specializing in high-tech plant-breeding systems, DeMarco planted 10,000 rose bushes, literally creating the “Ranch of 10,000 Roses,” a catchy moniker he often uses to describe his property.
However, when DeMarco started to create his sweet-smelling paradise, he ran afoul of the arbiters of style and design--namely the Rancho Santa Fe Assn.--in this tony enclave nestled in the hills. Now the community’s patrons and DeMarco are in court debating if a rose by any name is appropriate for Rancho Santa Fe.
In addition to 10,000 roses, his plans call for an 18-hole miniature “golf walk” that will run through his land. Each “fairway” will feature a different fragrant ground cover, “so each step releases the fragrance of mint, rosemary, thyme, peppermint, chocolate mint, spearmint, chamomile and yarrow,” according to a statement about the project. Each “hole” (there are no actual golf holes) represents the scents of a historical era, from plants of biblical significance to current flora.
In August, 1990, DeMarco submitted plans for his gardens to the Art Jury, the group that oversees landscape and design plans for the association, which governs the ranch through a covenant.
When he didn’t hear anything, DeMarco said, he moved ahead with with his project, which is now about 90% complete. He said he had to start work to comply with county and Fire Department orders to clean up the property, which had been in disuse for many years.
But 14 months after he submitted his plans, the Art Jury rejected his proposal. And DeMarco never received the permits necessary to do extensive landscaping, according to Rancho Santa Fe Assn. Planning Director Jim Hare.
The association got a temporary restraining order against DeMarco, which is now in effect, preventing him from doing any further work on his property. If the court upholds the association’s complaints, he could be forced to remove the landscaping.
The association simply doesn’t think DeMarco’s plans fit the community, said Dick Lane, head of the Art Jury.
‘It’s a very strange look,” he said. “It is a very formal, non-rural look not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.”
More than anything else, the association and the Art Jury objected to the way DeMarco has terraced parts of the property and covered the front slope of his land with 3,500 roses bushes, which are clearly visible from the road. The association also fined him $1,000 and told him to get rid of 5-foot-high white marble statues of dolphins in front of his driveway, which were deemed too “ornate.”
“We’re looking for landscaping that harmonizes with the traditions Rancho has established,” Hare said.
Members of the Art Jury and several other locals visited the property, but DeMarco said he never had any indication that they opposed the roses.
“They never said, ‘You know Jeff, you can’t do this.’ They said nothing. They just stroked their chins and left,” DeMarco said.
Four times, DeMarco has gone before the Art Jury to argue his case; four times he has been rejected, and four times his appeals to the association were denied.
The propriety of DeMarco’s roses has become a common topic around the community.
“I think it is a little commercial-looking,” said Lily Minc, president of the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club. “Aesthetically, I don’t think it’s the most beautiful garden.”
But, since it’s not in the center of town, and DeMarco’s house is situated near areas that fall outside the covenant, Minc doesn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other.
“Does it offend neighbors? That’s what should count,” she said.
A significant number of neighbors have complained, according to Lane.
Whether or not the garden fits the guidelines of the strict covenant, DeMarco believes his roses should be given an exemption as “agricultural property,” just like his neighbors’ orange and avocado groves.
But the association’s Hare said that the guidelines for agricultural exemptions are “fairly narrow,” and that a clear distinction is made for those crops “traditionally harvested” for agricultural purposes.
Of course, DeMarco’s neighbors’ homes with orange or avocados trees are not working ranches. Many simply have groves for tax or aesthetic reasons, not to “harvest” and sell the fruit, he pointed out.
Avocado and orange trees are as much a part of Rancho Santa Fe as the hundreds of eucalyptus trees that dot the landscape, which were planted by the Santa Fe railroad dozens of years ago. Groves of roses are not so common.
DeMarco views the property not as a commercial enterprise, but as an experiment. Using hybrids and a cross-breeding program, he wants to develop different varieties of fragrant roses.
DeMarco’s Carmel Mountain-based company, Pyraponic Industries, produces a plant-growing chamber called a Phototron, designed by DeMarco and sold primarily through mail order.
Pyraponic, founded in 1982, was included on Inc. magazine’s 1989 list of fastest-growing companies, with annual sales of $10.5 million reported for 1988. The company should gross about $16 million this year, DeMarco said.
He gained some notoriety two years ago when the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce recognized Pyraponic Industries with the Business of the Year in Manufacturing award, only to learn afterward that the Phototron is heavily advertised in magazines such as High Times, which target marijuana growers.
The 41-year-old Chicago native bought the Rancho Santa Fe estate and the 7,000-square-foot Spanish style house on it for $1.075 million three years ago when it was in foreclosure.
DeMarco wouldn’t speculate if the powers in Rancho Santa Fe may be treating him as an outsider, an interloper to an exclusive area where many have owned homes for decades and newcomers are not always welcome.
But he does believe the Art Jury may just be anti-roses.
“They said, ‘You will have zero roses in front of the property,’ as in none, zip,” DeMarco said. “That leaves zero room for compromise.”
Lane said it is DeMarco who won’t compromise. Each time he came back to the Art Jury, the plan included 10,000 roses, he said, adding that DeMarco’s first proposal only mentioned a few hundred rose bushes, not 10,000.
DeMarco said his initial plans called it “Ranch of 10,000 Roses,” which should have made his intentions clear.
DeMarco said he has spent $200,000 putting in the roses, but, in the spirit of compromise, he has prepared a detailed new plan and scaled back the number of rose bushes on the front slope from 3,500 to 350. He emphasizes that he only wants to be a good neighbor and settle the issue.
“I love Rancho Santa Fe,” he said.
All this hasn’t changed his attitude toward the community, although he said he is “confused” by the uproar and knows his relationship with some of his neighbors is clearly strained.
Because of the flap over the roses, DeMarco’s membership privileges in the association, an automatic perk of moving into Rancho Santa Fe, have been suspended. That means he can’t play golf or tennis at the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, which doesn’t bother him because he doesn’t play either sport.
But he’s also been told he can’t join the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club.
“That got me,” DeMarco said. “Plants are my life.”