As California prepares to vote in next week’s presidential primary, one of America's richest residential enclaves is embroiled in a big-money political fight that some fear may finally mark the death of its genteel, semi-rural lifestyle.
Known mostly by outsiders for its prodigious water use, wooded Rancho Santa Fe is in the midst of a bitter struggle for control of its all-powerful association board, along with millions of dollars for a gold-plated, super-speed internet hookup that could turn the horsey suburb into a lucrative high-tech hub.
Ultimately at stake are potentially billions of dollars in future real estate appreciation, with a good-sized chunk directly benefiting mega-millionaire ex–Padres owner John Jay Moores.
Rated by Forbes as the 18th most expensive zip code in the United States, "the Ranch" as the ten-square-mile unincorporated realm is known to its super-rich denizens, once enjoyed a self-enforced veil of privacy.
That was before Moores, a longtime magnet for controversy known for his take-no-prisoners style in both personal and political life, started shaking things up. The well-heeled Houstonian has occupied a sprawling Rancho Santa Fe estate since he bought Major League Baseball's San Diego Padres in 1994.
After persuading San Diego city voters to pay $13 million in yearly debt service on a new $450 million downtown baseball park, Moores became enmeshed in 2001's Valerie Stallings influence-peddling scandal, during which the Democratic city councilwoman was forced to quit the council and plead guilty to charges related to receiving a bevy of gifts and gratuities from Moores.
Then followed the downfall of fraud-tainted Peregrine Systems,the public company that the computer magnate had used to funnel stock to Stallings and others he favored, including San Diego State University.
In 2008, Moores's wife Becky filed for divorce, demanding an accounting of costly gifts he had allegedly been showering on mistress Dianne Rosenberg, a La Jolla gynecologist.
A March 2010 closed-door settlement ended the marriage, and Moores subsequently wed Rosenberg in an elaborate 2013 ceremony at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, which he had purchased the previous year.
In the three years since, the ex-baseball mogul has embarked on a makeover of the historic property, tasking his second-in-command John Kratzer with boosting value by adding multimillion-dollar residential units on adjacent land, still awaiting approval.
Along the way, the venture capitalist has been stepping on the toes of the Ranch's old guard, who accuse him of playing the same kind of cash-infused big-city politics that got him into trouble with Peregrine, the Stallings affair, and his first wife.
After Kratzer took out a full-page April 28, advertisement in the the Rancho Santa Fe Review praising the association’s board, another resident slammed back.
"A principal of The Inn placed a full-page ad as a resident. Mr. Resident/Company who owns The Inn openly supports three candidates who are running as a bloc,” said Dana Falk in a May 12 advertisement.
“The reason is to maintain their control.”
In addition to redeveloping the Inn property, Moores is also building a controversial 49.2-acre residential compound for himself and extended family and guests, including an on-site mini-desalination plant to treat brackish ground water drawn from deep wells on the property, according to those who have seen plans submitted as part of the approval process.
Arguably the most contentious of Moores’s spate of initiatives is a proposal to have the Ranch’s property owners cough up $13.5 million for a state-of-the-art internet system that Moores and his backers hope will prove a draw for the nation’s legions of fast-money Wall Street high-tech players.
“Lately, real estate agents have complained that young tech millionaires back out of purchase deals when they discover they can’t work from home offices,” reported the Union-Tribune’s Dan McSwain in a May 7 column that didn’t mention Moores’s lead role in the deal.
Moores and three friends bankrolled a consultant’s study in 2014 that led to the current proposal, which must ultimately be approved by Rancho Santa Fe property owners. Critics fear the costly installation will inordinately benefit Moores and fellow venture capitalists.
“Our financial interests are the same as yours: our homes,” responded Moores and his associates in a June 2 Review ad.
“As Jason Barry, of Barry Estates, said, ‘It wouldn't surprise me if home prices lift substantially — perhaps 5 or 10% as the Ranch becomes tech-friendly. This is great news for our community.’”
The group denied widely circulated speculation that they would reap outsized personal financial gains from a deal with Pennsylvania-based Hotwire Communications, picked by the association board to operate the fiber-optic system.
“We also want to provide our unequivocal assurance that none of us have any financial interest whatsoever in Hotwire Communications,” said the statement.
Because the unincorporated Ranch’s association board is a non-governmental entity and operates under state laws regulating homeowners’ associations, none of the campaign expenditures during board elections or the financial interests of boardmembers are required to be made public.
One family that has benefited financially from the internet project is that of Steve Peace, a former Democratic state senator and longtime Moores executive, whose sons Chad and Breton have worked as consultants on the project.
An association billing statement dated May 16 shows that the law firm of Peace & Shea, run by Chad Peace and Pat Shea, a registered lobbyist for Moores in the city of San Diego, along with Breton Peace, has been paid a total of $90,000 during 2015 and 2016.
Another Peace-run company, San Diego–based IVC Media, has done campaign work for Rancho Santa Fe association board president Ann Boon, who said in an online testimonial regarding IVC, “I trusted them with running my campaign, and now their communications efforts allow me to be a more effective leader in our community."
Ballots are due June 13, to be tallied the next day.