Should Rancho Santa Fe be designated a National Historic Place?

A rock designating the Rancho Santa Fe's California Historical Landmark in the village.
(Karen Billing)

History is destined to be a timely topic in Rancho Santa Fe in these 2020s, as the community inches closer to its centennial celebration: architect Lilian Rice designed the civic center between 1923 and 1928, when the Protective Covenant went into effect.

To pay proper tribute, a statue of Rancho Santa Fe’s matriarch-itect is planned to be unveiled in the village park next month, ahead of the Oct. 23 Roaring ‘20s Gala celebration hosted by the Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society.

At the Sept. 2 Rancho Santa Fe Association board meeting, Director Lorraine Kent remarked that the Ranch’s historic roots have been a topic at nearly every meeting since she joined the board in July as both community members and the Art Jury have advocated for the Association to pursue a National Register of Historic Places designation. Kent has requested that the Association board discuss its position on those requests at a future meeting.

Longtime Rancho Santa Fe resident Holly Manion first broached the subject in June, seeking a designation for the Ranch and its historic village center, trails, dark skies, winding rural roadways and mature landscaping.

Lilian Rice, seated, in the Rancho Santa Fe village in the 1920s.

“The national designation is needed to guard against the incremental changes that over time could diminish the charm and character of the Ranch and preserve it from encroaching development,” Manion said. “We can no longer sit back and accept what is happening around without taking a proactive stance, where there is something positive to do. We need to come together as a community and take the necessary action to protect, as best we can, what we have.”

If the Covenant obtains this designation, it could provide a legal boundary that would trigger an environmental review of any project that may have a negative impact on the Covenant, she said.

Manion said a designation would also strengthen the Covenant brand, increase property values and lead to a deeper understanding of the community’s history as they adapt to change while working to preserve the past.

“We must set up a framework for it to remain a unique rural and historic community for the next 100 years,” she said.

Manion’s calls were echoed by the Association’s Art Jury in August, who proposed the designation as a way to protect the Covenant from the potential impacts of the Senate Bill 9. The governor signed the new housing bill into law on Sept. 16, an effort to increase California’s housing supply by streamlining the process to create a duplex or subdivide an existing lot.

As SB 9 excludes historic and landmark districts, the Covenant may have some protections with its California State Historic Landmark designation, however, according to the Art Jury, it may not be enough.

The Art Jury requested that the Association board research all options, including establishing an ad-hoc committee to investigate a National Register of Historic Places designation.

Rocks around town already proclaim the Ranch’s historic nature. The Rancho Santa Fe Covenant was awarded the California State Historic Landmark in 1989 and a Cultural Landscape Amendment was added in 2004.

Eleven of Rice’s buildings in Rancho Santa Fe are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the La Flecha House, the current home of the Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society. The Osuna Adobe was the last to be added to the national register in 2017.

According to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, to be considered eligible an application must meet criteria that includes quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture present in the site, buildings, structures and objects. The nomination must be reviewed by the state Historic Preservation Office and the state’s National Register Review Board. The complete nomination is then submitted to the Federal Preservation Office and to the National Park Service for the final review and listing.

One San Diego community’s nomination is currently in the process of being considered: the Inspiration Heights Historic District in the Mission Hills neighborhood. The subdivision dates back to 1909 with “intact concentration” of early twentieth-century prairie school, craftsman and period revival architecture.

Pursuing a historic designation does come with significant time and expense. Mission Hills Heritage hired a consulting firm to guide them through the process and prepare the nomination package over the last year.

The Association has not yet committed to an ad-hoc exploration of a historical designation, with many items on their plate for the coming year.

A strategic planning session in August set the Association board’s five key initiatives for 2021-22 as the golf club restaurant, the development of a community survey, refining their architectural review process, figuring out the best use for the Osuna Ranch, and creating a strong workplace culture for Association employees.

A consideration of history will also play a role into any plans for the Osuna Ranch.

In a Sept. 14 letter to the Association, the Save our Heritage Organisation asked the board to carefully consider any proposed development on the property that might negatively impact the Osuna Adobe, the ranch’s cultural landscape or the National Register of Historic Places eligibility.

“An intact Mexican Rancho period adobe that continues to retain its original setting is quite rare and should be preserved for the benefit of future generations,” the letter stated.