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Photo by Jack GouldRANCHO SANTA MARGARITA This 15-year-old community, nestled in the Saddleback Valley and protected from the persistent ocean breeze, always seems a few degrees hotter than the rest of South County. Perhaps it is this persistent heat that has helped inflame the passions of the city's 47,000 residents, now in Year Two of incorporation.
For some time now, a revolution has been threatening to overturn this quiet city and disrupt its residents' carefully guided lives. Like so much political strife in this nation, the issue centers on color—not of skin, but of stucco.
Since the community's creation in 1985, all Rancho Santa Margarita single-family homes—many of which are worth a quarter of a million dollars—were painted the same salmon-pink color. The result was nothing short of flat-latex tyranny: house after house, row after row, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood of the same salmon pink. In other words, a city for people who like their neighborhoods to look like circuit boards. Think Brave New World meets Gattaca meets IKEA meets The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
"The goal of the master association is to simplify the painting process for the residents," said Amaya Genero, of the Rancho Santa Margarita Landscape and Recreation Corp. (known affectionately as SAMLARC). "This will help homeowners understand our vision for the community."
Mao Zedong may have advised that "a revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery," but he never said anything about painting the fascia so it doesn't match the window trim.
Chafing under such stifling uniformity, a few years ago, half a dozen residents led an upstart rebellion. Association board members heard of the revolt less than an hour after the first drops of pumpkin orange hit stucco. The board quickly quashed the uprising.
Relations between the homeowners and their association have never been quite the same. In recent years, unconfirmed reports described thousands of residents, arms linked, marching down Santa Margarita Parkway, singing their fiery protest song: "Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky./Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same."
The city seemed on the verge of general anarchy. Local paint-store officials lived in fear of a run on rollers, paint trays, and those little stir sticks and paint-can openers you get free with every gallon you buy.
To stave off chaos, this month, SAMLARC has loosened its grip on the city. A sweeping new decree allows residents to paint their homes beige, gray or even tan.
"As the community has aged over the past 15 years, SAMLARC is very excited to update the color palettes for single family homes within the community," says an association brochure. Another association newsletter proclaims, "The colors are new! They are vibrant, and they are fun!"
And some residents aren't wasting any time. One family painted their house a light mocha. Another is looking seriously at beige with white trim.
The colors may indeed be "fun," but clearly, SAMLARC still controls nearly two-thirds of Rancho Santa Margarita. SAMLARC, with its 50 pages of community rules—one of which stipulates that anyone fishing at the small community lake use "no more than one (1) pole per person, with no more than two (2) hooks per line"—remains all-powerful. Its purpose is "to maintain community-wide recreation areas, landscaping and open space, as well as to further enhance the long-term value and integrity of the community through administration of its Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions."
Residents may now have the freedom to choose between white and beige trim, but they still have to adhere to myriad regulations.
"Stucco CORBELS must be painted the designated stucco accent color but may be painted the designated main stucco color of the house," reads the association's painting-advisory guide. "The wall around the windows with no trim should be painted the main stucco or siding color of the house."
In addition, residents are forbidden to deviate from the prescribed color schemes. "Color Schemes must be chosen as listed in this notebook, and the mixing of color schemes is not permitted," says SAMLARC, which conceived detailed potential schemes for each housing tract in the city. "The result has not been tested and may not look good on the house."
Other association dominoes have begun to fall. With Rancho Santa Margarita gone down to defeat, could Mission Viejo be far behind? In fact, one official with a South County homeowners association confirmed that a number of subassociations have already asked to change their color palettes.
"Some of our older projects have requested changing color schemes," said the official, who preferred to remain anonymous. "They want to be more consistent with the colors used nowadays. The new colors may also increase their home's resale value."
As yet, no one has said a word about the Spanish-style clay-tile roofs that also dominate the community.