When You Buy in the Ranch, Go by the Book 


In 2014, my husband and I renovated a 1950’s California Ranch in the Covenant. We moved from a rural North County neighborhood with no CC&Rs and a robust libertarian “don’t-tread-on-me” vibe. It was not uncommon to see a homeowner using a front loader to create jumps for their young motocross family, or an eclectic front-yard gnome garden. While I subscribe to the belief that we are a free people, the thought of an HOA preserving or protecting the community from bad design was a welcome change.

Rancho Santa Fe is a haven from metro San Diego with stands of giant eucalyptus trees casting shadows over winding roads, horse pastures connected to miles of riding trails, and lovely homes peeking behind dense foliage. And my personal favorite — the dark night sky. Although it may be a challenge for new friends to find our homes, the Rancho skies provide a canvas for the Big Dipper or Pegasus on a moonless night. Neighbors will catch up with one another while picking up mail at the post office, or meet new ones on the monthly trail walks followed by pizza and beer at the Club. Rancho is a gem of a community.

When new members move in, often the first order of business, after signing a mountain of mostly unread escrow papers and securing that endangered species of a post office box, is to start fixing up the place. After all, this is a 100-year-old community with homes dating back almost as far. New Covenant residents commonly head to Lowes or Home Depot imagining how to transform their little slice of rural heaven into something out of Homes & Gardens.

Screeching Halt 

My husband and I promptly started drawing up plans to renovate our charming little ranch house. Once everything appeared to have been approved by the Art Jury and County, we began to pull out the overgrown pines to reconfigure the horseshoe driveway down to one entrance. The phone rang immediately and we were told to stop everything. It appeared we had misjudged the Association’s use of the word “approve,” and, in our enthusiasm to clean up the dilapidated property, we didn’t know our yet-to-be-designed landscape plan was not included.

Everything came to a screeching halt, as we quickly and painfully found out our stop-work order meant nothing could resume on our renovation until all the screening was replaced with mature trees and shrubs shielding the house from the neighbors. Plant screening is highly valued and is part of the allure of Rancho Santa Fe. It’s one of the reasons well-heeled folks move here. The innocuous P.O. Box addresses and hidden-from-view homes give those seeking privacy and anonymity the perfect refuge. They don’t want to see us, and they don’t want us to see them.

The uniqueness of Rancho Santa Fe didn’t happen by accident. In the 1920’s, architect Lilian Rice developed the low-density, high-green-space community’s master plan. She designed and supervised the construction of the village center, several homes on Paseo Delicias, and what became the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe. The architecture was low-slung and Latin-inspired like the old Spanish haciendas. 

This Not That 

In the 1950’s, new residents purchased the generously sized parcels and built California Ranch homes. To help property owners navigate the Rancho Santa Fe aesthetic, the Association published a hand-illustrated book in the early nineties that detailed how to renovate or build new homes with a “this-not-that” description for everything from exterior light-fixture placement, landscaping, grading, and fencing, to architecture. These guidelines are meant to preserve the rural landscape and feel of the Ranch. 

This is where the Art Jury comes in, which primarily exists to explain why we can’t paint our cliff-top home Arctic white, build a stucco wall around our entire property like Oprah’s manse in Montecito, or light up the yard to serve as a beacon for lost ships in the night. This five-person group, of which I hold the position of Secretary, consists of members who volunteer every three weeks to pour over our house and landscaping plans to ensure that all new projects fit the design aesthetic and are harmonious with the low-density landscape. It’s a tricky job, which is probably why it’s not the most beloved committee in the Association.

When new members purchase property in the Covenant, they agree to the CC&Rs that are usually buried in that pile of escrow documents. In the excitement of closing and moving in, most probably don’t pay much attention to the fine details. I know I didn’t. I just knew we loved this rural community and we were thrilled to be a part of it.

Attention to Detail 

Even though the stop-work order caused huge delays that were so maddening and stressful it actually sent me to the hospital, I came to appreciate the Association’s and my architect’s attention to the seemingly arbitrary details. And I love our century-old transplanted olive trees that screen our home. I just didn’t fully appreciate the design history of Rancho Santa Fe, and what the word “Protective” in Protective Covenant really meant. Turns out we are all being protected from one another’s questionable design choices, and in some cases, our own.

Insider tip:  If you’re new, welcome to the Ranch. Before heading to the home improvement store, pull out your Residential Design Guidelines book and stop by the Association’s Building Department. They will be happy to help if you have any questions.  

Ms. Hillard is an Association member and Secretary of the Art Jury.