It’s The Art Jury’s Fault

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This is a companion article to Jack’s Story. You may want to read that one first.

“That house is too big”. “Are they ever going to finish building that house, it’s been years!”. “Who approved that?”. “When are they going to do something about that broken down barn?”. “That house has been an eyesore since the ’70s”. “Property values aren’t going up fast enough!”. “That house is just too small.”. “I should be able to build my house the way I want to!”

“One thing’s for sure, it’s the Art Jury’s fault“.

Boy, do I hear that a lot. Many ills in Rancho are dumped at the feet of the Art Jury. From currently sitting Board members to real estate agents, to random members, one thing they all can agree on, It’s The Art Jury’s Fault.

This perception has gotten so bad that successive recent Association Boards have spent considerable time and effort to fix the Art Jury

But is the Art Jury the problem, or is it just a convenient whipping boy?

HOAs and Architectural Review Boards

First, let’s set the stage. Almost all the 300,000 HOAs in the US have CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions). The vast majority of HOAs have architectural review boards. Building restrictions are a very common part of our real estate landscape. Where Rancho Santa Fe might be different is that it is very old (90 years), and Rancho’s Covenant is somewhat ambiguous in what architectural styles it allows. Age means you have houses that might have made sense in 1960 (it was an odd time), but look out of place now. And the Covenant architectural style restrictions boil down to needing to be “Latin inspired”, which isn’t exactly a recipe for consistency.

Other nearby HOAs have more restrictive CC&Rs when it comes to architectural styles. Try building some common house styles you see in Rancho Santa Fe in Cielo or The Bridges and see how far you get.

What Is The Art Jury?

When you buy a house in the Covenant of Rancho Santa Fe, you agree to be bound by the Protective Covenant, which is part of our CC&Rs. In that document, it states that the Association Board president will appoint five residents/members to an Art Jury for three year terms which will approve all new building and remodels. The Art Jury is aided by a consulting professional architect who gives expert opinion.

If you modify your house, property or landscape in a visible way, you should obtain Art Jury approval. Examples including repainting, resurfacing, solar panels, trash enclosures, fences, grading, and, of course, any remodel/construction that affect exterior appearance.

The Art Jury does not do any kind of enforcement. The Association has full time staff that handles that. So if a house is constructed differently than what the Art Jury approved, that’s a staff responsibility to catch and correct this. Likewise for all property maintenance issues. 

How Does The Art Jury Function?

Every three weeks, the Art Jury meets on Monday for a full day of site visits where they look at applicant’s properties. They generally do not visit for minor projects or routine applications. This is followed by a full day Tuesday session where residents and/or their architect present their project, answer questions, and receive suggested changes to conform with the Protective Covenant and Regulations. If you have a minor submission, you generally don’t attend these sessions.

Many Art Jury submissions are approved within a single session. I personally have submitted over eight different projects to the Art Jury over the last twenty years. Four of them were approved in a single meeting (house remodel, new driveway, house addition, and exterior retaining wall/pilaster resurfacing). I wrote about one of these submissions here. The Art Jury will work on your submission about 20 days after each submission deadline, with a letter/email being sent to you within a few days after that. Compared to any municipal or county permit process, this is very quick.

Perceptions

Depending who you talk to, you will get polar opposite views on the Art Jury. Many residents (including recent Art Jurors) think the Art Jury has been too lenient through the years and have allowed non conforming architecture to be built in addition to allowing low quality construction designs. Current Art Jurors are routinely annoyed when people point out non conforming architecture to them when a completely different Art Jury approved it many years ago.

On the other end of the spectrum, I asked a couple of real estate agents who sell a lot of houses in Rancho Santa Fe what their client’s perceptions are. Scott Union of Union West Real Estate says buyers who are familiar with Rancho Santa Fe will most often say they’ve either been warned or just “know” that building a new house in Rancho Santa Fe is difficult because of the Art Jury. Asked to quantify this number, he estimated that 50% to 80% of buyers looking to build a new house (on an empty lot or a tear down) express apprehension about building in the Covenant due to their perception of the Art Jury process.

Caren Kelly of Equestrian Real Estate Group says buyers are often afraid of the Art Jury process, with some thinking it to be arbitrary and capricious. She calls this perception “a bit of a deterrent” to selling houses in Rancho.

I talked to an architect (who would rather remain anonymous). While Rancho isn’t as bad as Del Mar, which he called a hideously difficult place to build due to view restrictions, he has found it inconsistent, and that it depends who is on the Art Jury, and unfortunately now, who is on the Board. Indeed he has known people that decided to just roll the dice and do a major remodel without getting Association approval. He has sometimes found that the Art Jury process will force compromises that in the end inhibit good design. 

Making Magic Isn’t Easy

Have you seen the movie Shakespeare In Love? If not, do yourself a favor and rent this light hearted comedy. There is a running joke in the movie whereby the beleaguered theater owner is beset by a multitude of problems including owing money to the local crime boss. The theater owner is pointedly asked how he’s going to pay back the loan when he doesn’t have a play, playwright, actors, or audience. He just shrugs his shoulders and says, “I have no idea. It’s magic”. The point being that creating art is a poorly understood chaotic process that only sometimes works, and when it does, you might as well call it magic.

Building a custom house on a weirdly shaped undulating lot with poorly defined (and constantly changing) owner intentions, with an architect who has their own style and predilections, mixed in with fire department and protective covenant restrictions, is a recipe for, well, either art or a mis-managed disaster. 

And the Art Jury sees no shortage of mis-managed disasters. People will often interpret the Art Jury’s seeming intransigence on design elements as obstruction, yet the usually more experienced (than you) Art Jury is only trying to save you from yourself.

My very first interaction with the Art Jury was twenty years ago when my wife and I tried to build a custom home on an empty lot. This is part of the letter we got back from the Art Jury:

Well, at least they got straight to the point. Truth be told, we never gelled with our architect. The design really wasn’t coming together. And when we visited the site to look at the story poles (which we hadn’t before the submittal), we found that we wholeheartedly agreed with the comment that the house was too prominent. We were too inexperienced to realize from the plans what the architect had actually designed until we looked at the story poles ourselves.

Indeed, it isn’t unusual for applicants that have gone through the Art Jury process to thank the Art Jury for improving their projects once their projects are built. Seen this way, the Art Jury becomes less of an obstacle and more like a free consultant to help improve the project.

The reality is that if you adhere to design elements outlined in the Protective Covenant and Design Guidelines, you’re most of the way there to approval. Just be aware that Rancho was never a modern planned community and that means there are a lot of challenging lots. Weird lot shapes, grading problems, new county retention basin regulations are just some of the challenges you must work through. 

Realistic Expectations

Here’s another anecdote. In our discussion forums, a potential outside buyer was looking to buy a lot to build a house, and I started up a conversation with him.

Him: I want to build a Spanish Mediterranean architectural house.
Me: Great, shouldn’t be a problem.
Him: And I really like George Washington Smith style houses!
Me: You mean that two story rectangular looking style?
Him: Yes! And I don’t want to pay a lot of money, so I’m looking at lots that haven’t been built before and are around 2 acres.”
Me: “Um…”

It was actually kinda comical how quickly the conversation went sideways from “No problem” to “That’s just not going to work”. My point is that some people have unrealistic expectations. There are real limits. Look, it might be possible to build a George Washington Smith style house in Rancho, but it’ll have to be on a large lot, have significant landscape screening, and have ameliorating design features such that it isn’t just a rectangular box.

And yes, building in Rancho Santa Fe is going to cost money. Between ever increasing fire department and county regulations, along with Art Jury mandated good quality design, you may not want to build new here if you are on a tight budget.

Nothing Is Perfect

If the Art Jury has a perception problem, part of the reason is that it is held to an impossibly high standard. It deals with 30-40 projects every time it meets. The vast majority of submissions go through the process without a hitch. But the Art Jury is judged on the 1% to 2% of projects that it is either too lenient on or too restrictive (and there isn’t even consensus on which is which). I would say that a 98% success rate in a highly subjective and technical professional job is pretty good.  

Having said that, it is true that some Art Jurors are better than others. In researching this article, I came across stories of seemingly capricious individual Art Jurors. To which I can only say that I hope future Boards really do their due diligence when selecting Art Jurors because it really does make a big difference.

Suggestions

The Art Jury as a Rancho institution is never going away. It is built into our governing documents. And it isn’t clear there is anything wrong with it that requires fixing. But if you were to try to fix things, you might want to do it in such a way that good Art Jurors don’t resign in frustration (see Jack’s Story). The Board has rushed through many changes/interpretations/mandates onto the Art Jury in the past several years. Could it maybe slow down and gain consensus before it passes future resolutions? Or maybe all Board members could be engaged and ask questions about resolutions rather than rubber stamp them?

One way to improve Art Jury decisions is to give them more help by way of staff in the building department. When Art Jurors look at 30-40 submissions in a meeting, things will be missed. Staff can help the Art Jury by pointing out issues. Staff can also help members with their applications. During one of my failed Art Jury submissions several years ago (I ended up abandoning the project), I consulted with a then very harried and seemingly overworked staff member. More help would have been appreciated.

As for the Art Jury itself, find potential Art Jurors who have a passion for good quality architectural design, who aren’t dogmatic, and who can get along in a committee setting. And then support them, not be adversarial. I mean, we recently had a Board member denigrate the Art Jury directly during an annual meeting!

In general, the Association should be promoting the Art Jury as a positive factor in living here. Not only in the obvious way of saying that it protects our unique character, but also that it helps improve applicant’s projects. As I said above, the Art Jury should be looked at as a resource, not a hindrance. But Art Juries can’t change these perceptions on their own. It takes good Art Jurors and an Association staff and Board that backs them in their difficult mission.