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Ralph Genovese doesn't use the word "mansion" to describe the three dwellings he will construct on a mountaintop in Rancho Santa Fe. He prefers "estate." He's building one of the homes for himself, and he hopes to sell the other two for close to $4 million apiece.

The first to take shape will have 7400 square feet of interior space that will open to ocean views sweeping from Mexico to Catalina Island. In addition to the master-bedroom suite and the kitchen and the family room and the dining and living rooms, this home will have three secondary bedrooms, five full bathrooms, two powder rooms, a study, a gym, a game room, five fireplaces, garage space for four cars, a wine cellar designed to hold 500 bottles, and outdoor-entertaining facilities that would look respectable at a hotel. "Whoever buys these homes is going to get something magnificent," Genovese predicts in late August 2002, on the eve of groundbreaking. "We're gonna do a nice job."

Genovese has consented to let a reporter follow the construction on the condition that the house, rather than he, be the main subject of the story. His background isn't relevant, he says; he retired from a publishing career in the Chicago area. He has overseen the building of two other custom homes: one in the Midwest and one in Rancho Santa Fe, where he and his wife now reside. From their current home, they can see part of the five square miles that constitute the Cielo development, where Genovese's properties are located. They first got interested about five years ago when they noted increased activity in the area. Around the fall of 1999, the Genoveses got onto the property in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, they liked what they saw, and they closed escrow on the three lots in the late spring of 2001.

You get to Cielo from the commercial zone that's at the center of Rancho Santa Fe by driving east on Paseo Delicias, which soon becomes Del Dios Highway. After about five minutes, you pass the signs for the Crosby, an enclave of 433 homes under construction on 722 acres. The driveway into Cielo is located a few hundred yards farther east on the hilly northern side of the highway. Both "production" and custom-home sections have been designated in this community. In the production areas, three different builders have been erecting some of the priciest tract housing in San Diego County (ranging from $1.6 to $2.5 million). It is in the much larger custom-home section, however, that Genovese bought his property, which includes site 151.

Lots in the custom section cost between $700,000 and $1 million, a sum that gives the buyer title to between one and three acres. That may sound like a lot of land, but much of it consists of hillsides. The level building space at site 151 is an area that's 150 feet wide by 135 feet deep, roughly a quarter of the total property. Genovese will be building one of the first custom homes in the community. Its only predecessors are the four houses that were featured in the luxury home tour sponsored by the San Diego County Building Industry Association in 2001. Site 151 sits between two of those four "Tour d'Elegance" homes and across the street from the other two.

The names of those four -- Bella Cielo, Sotto Il Monte, Villa di Bella Loggia, Palacio Pacifico -- suggest a Mediterranean influence that is echoed in the Italianate guardhouse, located up a long driveway from the road, and in a Romanesque aqueduct, just beyond the guardhouse, that carries water from Lake Hodges to a local reservoir. According to the developer's public relations spokeswoman, the tract homes are supposed to conjure up images of Tuscan hillside villages. Cielo's design requirements allow for some wiggle room, however, and Genovese has taken advantage of this. The style of his own house will be "eclectic Mediterranean," and the one at site 151 will be French.

Genovese contributed to the design of all three houses. It's not hard to do, he suggests, even when you don't know anything about the future buyer. Certain elements must be incorporated because any high-end buyer would expect them: walk-in closets, a kitchen island. Genovese says while planning the Cielo houses, he talked to realtors about buyers' interests, and those conversations confirmed his impression that single-story residences were a hot commodity. The Genoveses' own home at Cielo will occupy just one level. The two spec houses will have limited second stories, "but they're both designed so that the person who buys them can live on one floor. They don't ever have to go to the second floor if they don't choose to."

He says he copied designs: some gleaned while traveling in southern Europe, others from photos. He took his detailed sketches to Dan Castillero, who's been building deluxe houses in San Diego County for more than 25 years. Castillero created detailed construction drawings. His construction company will build all three of Genovese's mansions.

Groundbreaking, August 21, 2002

The beginning looks so simple. Bulldozers have scraped Genovese's ground of its covering of low chaparral. Against the tawny dirt, white chalk lines mark where the walls will rise. Soon activity will burst forth at this site. But today it's flat and empty.

Cool breezes are blowing, moderating the sun's heat. Eight miles away, the ocean is the color of polished turquoise. This is the morning David Westerfield will hear himself declared guilty of murder, kidnapping, and kiddie-porn possession. By the time the verdict is read in downtown San Diego, a single backhoe operator will have gouged out the first trenches in the corner of site 151 that's farthest from the street. The operator figures it will take at least two and a half more days to finish digging where all the lines have been drawn. The stony ground makes the going slow.

But the driver is a methodical man. Over and over again, he brings the backhoe's narrow arm downward to claw into the earth. It's not a tranquil process. Growling engine noises mix with loud metallic clunks and bangs and shiver-inducing scrapes.

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