Rancho Santa Fe Covenant won’t change racist coding

Rancho Santa Fe’s Covenant Association, basically a quasi-governmental homeowners association dating to the community’s founding in the 1920s, refuses to change the covenant designation that harkens back to racist restrictions in its original 1928 documentation despite the 1948 outlawing of the practice by the United States Supreme Court, sources say.

“What’s unique about Rancho Santa Fe’s covenant is that it went beyond just restricting the deed itself as to who a seller might sell to, but also restricting a host of many activities or even types of architecture,” Phoebe Young, author of “California Vieja,” said to KPBS last year. “By marrying both racial restrictions with architectural restrictions, I think made it pretty unique at the time.”

Adopted in 1928, the Rancho Santa Fe Protective Covenant, detailed architectural and racial restrictions to ensure it would be a whites-only paradise.

A section of the Covenant pertaining to “Limitation of Occupancy and Ownership,” said, “No part of said property shall be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole or in part to any person of an African or Asiatic race or to any person not of the white or Caucasian race.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court has laid down the law of the land outlawing racial exclusions of home ownership, the Covenant document continues to state the racist code.

Two well-respected Rancho Santa Fe Covenant residents, Janet Lawless-Christ and Mary Bills, tried last year to call attention to the racist Covenant language and consign it to the trash bin of history.

Sorry Charlie, no dice. Lawless-Christ said Thursday that their efforts were rebuffed informally with what one might term extreme prejudice on every level, from residents to officials of the Rancho Santa Fe Association, which governs Covenant policies. Lawless-Christ would not name the racist language proponents.

Efforts to expunge the racist language from the Covenant’s Covenant were detailed by KPBS News in an article published in November 2021 titled “A reckoning in Rancho Santa Fe over its racist legacy.”

“Mary Bills, a Rancho Santa Fe resident, and her friend Janet Lawless Christ, a local real estate agent, want to see the community take more steps to address its racist past,” KPBS said.

“They are behind an effort to try to change the name of Rancho Santa Fe’s governing document, which they feel is discriminatory, and encourage people to stop referring to the area as ‘The Covenant.'”

Bills said: “We’re just asking that they (the association) address these codes word that are still sending signals of discrimination — by using these words, by having this document — and people of good will when they know something is wrong and don’t change it, then I think there’s a problem”.

Janet Lawless-Christ (left) and Mary Bills sit and talk in Bill’s garden in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Aug. 11, 2021./KPBS

Bills and Lawless Christ said they wanted to start a conversation about a history that they don’t think a lot of people that live in Rancho Santa Fe even know about, according to KPBS.

“I would guess that 80% of the people who live in the covenant don’t understand that yet,” said Lawless Christ. “We should know that the covenant had restrictive racial bias when it was written. We should acknowledge that.”

The community prides itself on its architectural history. The association website tells of Bing Crosby’s famed clambakes at the golf club, but it never mentions anything about racial restrictions.

“There’s an elitist message being sent and people are protective of it,” Bills said.

The area’s exclusivity and racial boundaries are still palpable to many. Rancho Santa Fe remains 83% white, according to the U.S. Census.

In reporting this story, KPBS reached out to several people in Rancho Santa Fe who declined to speak on the issue, including a prominent real estate agent and members of the Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society.

Christy Whalen, the manager of the Rancho Santa Fe Association, told KPBS in a written statement that: “All homeowners associations have covenants” and that “if there is a story here it is that the Rancho Santa Fe Association was ahead of the curve” by removing the language in 1973.

She further elaborated that “covenant” is a term meaning an agreement and does not have racial connotations and that even if changes were made the use of the word covenant would still need to be invoked.

“I’ve heard people saying, ‘just stop stirring the pot.’ What pot are we stirring and why do we have to stop stirring the pot? We need to continue,” Lawless Christ said. “We have not reached a place where there is not a racially charged connotation to the word ‘covenant.’ By removing the word, we’re making a step in the right direction.”

Neither Bills nor Lawless Christ think changing the name will address any inequities or radically change the community, KPBS said. “But they believe openly acknowledging Rancho Santa Fe’s past will enable it move forward as a more inclusive place.”

Inn at Rancho Santa Fe/Ben Sevier

The Rancho Santa Fe Covenant contains 1,740 homes on 6,200 acres. Pacific Sotheby’s real estate site says homes range from 1,700-square feet to 15,000-square feet mainly priced between $1.5 million to $22 million. Most lots are two acres. The Covenant also contains 85 condos starting at $800,000.

Only residents of The Covenant are permitted to belong to the RSF Golf and Tennis Club, located in the heart of The Covenant and regarded as one of the premier golf venues in the western United States.

Pacific Sotheby’s sales pitch writers continued:

“The Covenant refers to the original planned community of Rancho Santa Fe. At the center is a small village, library, civic center, school, community center, garden club, and the only hotel, The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe. Aesthetics and architecture within The Covenant are protected by an Art Jury. There are no street lights, sidewalks or traffic lights, but there are an abundance of winding roads that slow traffic and contribute to a relaxed lifestyle.

“Rancho Santa Fe is proud of its rich heritage and, in 1989, Rancho Santa Fe was designated as a State Historical Landmark. Originally an Indian rancheria, the land called “Rancho San Dieguito” was granted to Juan Maria Osuna, the mayor of San Diego in the mid-1800’s. His family gradually sold off the land and, in 1906, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railway purchased all of the land to plant eucalyptus trees for use as railroad ties.

“When the trees proved unsuitable for ties, the Santa Fe Company hired architect Lillian Rice to plan and design a horse-oriented residential community. She favored the Spanish Colonial Revival style. In 1917, the completion of the Lake Hodges Dam brought water to the area, and construction began in 1922.

“Rancho Santa Fe gained popularity between World War I and World War II. After the construction of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Bing Crosby was one of the Ranch’s “early settlers,” hosting annual clambakes on the golf course at the Club.

“Known for its horses, The Covenant features 45 miles of private riding/hiking trails, as well as the RSF Riding Club and Saddle Club. Some of the finest horse trainers in the country live here, and the area was the site for the equestrian events during the 1984 Olympics. Polo is a popular pastime.”

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