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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : They Never Promised Him a Rose Garden : Homeowners group in ritzy Rancho Santa Fe says man's horticultural display violates an ironclad covenant.

September 20, 1993|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO SANTA FE — The subject either is or is not roses, depending on who is doing the talking.

Jeffery DeMarco says he only wants to bring his share of beauty to this woodsy, ritzy community by planting 10,000 rosebushes on the terraced hill that fronts his four-acre spread. He cannot believe that his heart's desire for a "fragrance garden" of roses, mint and chamomile has provoked an acrimonious court fight with his neighbors.

"Pardon me for feeling defensive," he said while sitting in the breakfast nook of his $1.2-million, 7,000-square-foot home, "but I've been beaten up for 2 1/2 years over this."

DeMarco's neighbors and the people who run the Rancho Santa Fe Assn., the all-powerful homeowners association that serves as a government and arbiter of taste hereabouts, tell it differently.

They say the story is less about roses than about trees being chopped down, improper grading and drainage, front-yard lights that shine the wrong way, and a mocking attitude toward a way of governance that has served "the ranch" well for 65 years and made it one of the most prestigious communities in California.

"Mr. DeMarco is one of those folks who is going to do what he's going to do and damn what everybody else thinks," said Don Chandler, a semi-retired dentist who lives across from DeMarco.

DeMarco was recently ordered by a Superior Court judge to remove the 5,000 bushes already planted, undo his landscaping and pay the association $35,000 in legal fees. In effect, he had lost the case by being a no-show at a crucial hearing.

Undaunted, he is fighting a contempt citation for allegedly violating a previous order to cease all landscaping. And he plans to appeal the more recent order, confident that he will triumph "if only I can have my day in court."

DeMarco, 42, is more than just an energetic, loud-talking and personable entrepreneur who made his money manufacturing an air filtration gizmo called a Hepatron and moved to the ranch four years ago.

To ranch loyalists, he is a threat to the Rancho Santa Fe Protective Covenant, the landowners' agreement that every new owner is obliged to sign as a condition of purchase.

The covenant empowers the association directors to exercise enormous control over their neighbors' property, down to the shade of paint on the shutters, the variety of flowers, the design of outdoor sculptures (DeMarco was dinged for his dolphins), and whether the garage door can be seen from the street (a major no-no).

Tasteful land use is a civic religion in Rancho Santa Fe, and the covenant is its Bible--complete with commandments and village elders to enforce them. There are few sins more egregious on the ranch than challenging the hegemony of the covenant.

"If we don't stop Mr. DeMarco," association manager Walt Ekard said, "what stops the next guy from putting up a room addition or something else on his property without permission?"

*

In the beginning, Rancho Santa Fe, 25 miles north of San Diego and four miles inland, was a eucalyptus grove planted by the Santa Fe Railway Co. to provide lumber for railroad ties.

When that flopped, the company decided to turn the 6,300 acres of gently rolling hills into an enclave of gracious living. To achieve that end, owners in 1928 devised the covenant, which reigns supreme everywhere except for a few "islands" where the original owners resisted inclusion.

A stock market analysis firm has rated Rancho Santa Fe as the second wealthiest ZIP code in America, trailing only Beverly Hills. Its 4,500 residents enjoy an unhurried lifestyle amid million-dollar manses, a golf course, horse trails and a tiny village-like downtown.

Actors Robert Young and Victor Mature, singer Patti Page, astronaut Wally Schirra and sportscaster Dick Enberg live on the ranch. So do retired Fortune 500 executives, doctors, lawyers, retired diplomats and more. Bing Crosby and Howard Hughes owned homes here.

Amid much discussion of DeMarco's court case, ranch residents this past weekend celebrated the 65th anniversary of the signing of the covenant. The ranch was abuzz with a Rotary Club picnic, a golf tournament and the bonhomie of the well-to-do.

The Rancho Santa Fe Review newspaper put out a special section ("Happy birthday to a truly remarkable document") and the local pharmacy and bottle shop bought a large ad praising the covenant.

Under this document, the association's board of directors is elected by the homeowners. The board, in turn, cedes architectural and landscaping matters to an appointed group called the Art Jury.

DeMarco's woes began in 1991 with a protest by his next-door neighbor, a retired general from the South Korean army. DeMarco made repeated trips to the Art Jury.

Among other things, the Art Jury has rules against linear landscaping (DeMarco's roses are planted in straight lines) and against allowing any one plant to dominate a landscaping plan. When DeMarco persisted, the association sued to stop him.

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