The Notorious RDG


The RSFA board has been discussing and discussing and discussing revising the Residential Design Guidelines (RDG) for over a year now.

This latest discussion centered around building commissioner Maryam Babaki’s memo where she stated that trying to define “Latin Inspired Architecture” in a black and white regulation was a fool’s errand, and recommended that such information be folded into a revised Residential Design Guidelines document where it would be useful information for homeowners, yet allow the Art Jury to exercise their final determination on any one project.

Here’s the controversy in a nutshell. The Covenant requires that homes built in RSF be a “Latin inspired” type of architecture, and leaves it to the discretion of the Art Jury to figure out on a case by case basis, what is and isn’t Latin inspired. For instance, Art Juries through the years consistently have disallowed log homes, mountain homes that would look good on a ski slope, and ultra modern homes (when not overruled by the Board) just to name a few excluded styles.

But some on the board have a perception that Art Juries in general are bad at their jobs and thus want to put in “guard rails” to constrain them.

And thus they want to actually define in black and white, numbers and bullet point lists what is a “Latin inspired architecture”.

As Babaki wrote in her memo “Architecture is recognized primarily as an art form and as such, it does not lend itself to the organization of a regulation”.

Or, as any architect will tell you (and many have told me), architecture, like art, is a creative process which can create new works that can’t be envisioned by a bullet point list of attributes, and yes, even if you constrain it to be “Latin inspired”.

What Board Members Think

Rick Sapp isn’t a fan of Babaki’s advice. He questioned how enforceable the residential design guidelines really are. The answer, of course, is that the Art Jury has full power to deny and advance house designs, but Sapp doesn’t like that, he wants the Art Jury to be straightjacketed. He also likened architectural styles to recent grading and lighting regulations, oblivious to the fact that grading and lighting can be specified using numbers, whereas architecture cannot.

Bill Weber echoed Sapp’s questioning of the enforcement mechanism. He also used a legal argument saying that if we allowed too much architectural diversity, then if someone were to challenge an Art Jury decision, the Association could lose in the courts because of our diversity. First, that horse left the barn long ago, our housing stock is already pretty diverse. Second, current Art Juries are more restrictive than past ones, not less. Third, who is going to spend $250K or more and five years taking the Association to court over an architectural style? Certainly not a spec house developer, they don’t have time and money for such foolishness. And certainly not a homeowner, they actually want to live in the damn house, not litigate for five years. Finally, absent malfeasance, Associations generally win these kinds of lawsuits anyways.

Bill Strong kept repeating that this is an about face from what the direction of this regulation had been up until this point. There was no mistaking what Strong thought about how this relates to the Art Jury saying “Giving the Art Jury discretion in this will only mean more inconsistency and we will be subject to individual Art Juror’s interpretations”.

Dan Comstock outlined a different vision. He expressed concern that if we overly regulated architectural styles, then our new housing stock will all start to look like Santaluz, which is to say cookie cutter.

Greg Gruzdowich pointed out that the Covenant could easily have defined “Latin inspired” more tightly, but chose not to. They instead left it to an Art Jury to figure out what made sense at the time since architectural styles, preferences, and building materials all change over time.

Lorraine Kent asked Babaki if we could fashion a better process to revise the Residential Design Guidelines, and Babaki said maybe there was.

Laurel Lemarié stated that architectural styles cannot be quantified like other regulations can be. She also pointed out that Rancho Santa Fe got along fine without any Residential Design Guidelines for its first sixty years, and has survived the current version for thirty more.

What The Art Jury Thinks

Babaki wrote in her memo:

This matter was discussed with other stakeholders including the Committee to update the Residential Design Guideline (RDG Committee), and the Art Jury. Both these committees agreed that regulating architectural features can in fact bring about piecemeal architecture that could be void of artistic elements, that often best represent good architecture.

Meaning, don’t make this into a regulation. It is a wonder that board members are allowed to ignore the experts in our community and do what they want to anyways.

Update: Dark humor section taken out due to potential unintended consequences.