Californian suburb where the rich stick strictly to the rules

American Times SAN MARINO
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SAN MARINO is not the sort of community to sport large welcome signs for visitors. All the arriving motorist sees is a clutch of warnings: trucks over three tons may not pass; street parking is prohibited between the hours of 2am and 5am; dogs must be kept on a leash at all times.

Along winding residential streets with perfectly trimmed trees and manicured lawns lurk further discreetly posted signs. "No riding bicycles or wheeled toys on sidewalk," one says. "Flying of model airplanes or possession of any motorised racer is prohibited," says another. This is at the entrance to the main public recreation area, Lacy Park.

But these visible prohibitions are only the beginning of the story. According to city rules, home-owners may not leave cars on their driveways for more than 48 hours without risking a fine. Anyone wishing to trim a tree has to seek official permission, and failure to abide by the strict regulations can result in mandatory enrolment in a community-sponsored tree-pruning class.

Forgetting to mow the lawn can result in a citation at the local courthouse and a fine. Ditto for those who let their lawn sprinklers dribble on the pavement.

Professional gardeners are encouraged, but only after they have been vetted and issued with an identification tag that must be carried on the job at all times.

Every house has to have a garage with room for at least two cars.

Using a garage for other purposes - for storage, or for office space - is strictly forbidden. In fact, business activities of all kinds are banned in private homes. As is the construction of more than one kitchen. More than one kitchen might encourage tenants, and tenants are strictly forbidden under an ordinance proclaiming that all houses in San Marino must be single family homes.

In laidback, happy-go-lucky, anything-goes California, San Marino is an anomaly. It is probably the most regulated local community in America, if not the world.

What other city would insist on bicycle licences, or pet restrictions limiting households to "a maximum of three dogs or four cats over the age of six weeks"?

Tom Santley, executive director of the San Marino Chamber of Commerce, explained: "People here like rules and orderliness. It all stems from the desires of the residents themselves."

Needless to say, this is a conservative part of the world, a suburb of old, established money just south of Pasadena, about 10 miles north-east of downtown Los Angeles.

The police rarely show their faces on the streets because they do not need to. If a resident commits an infraction, they soon know it because the neighbours instantly call up to complain.

San Marino was originally the retreat of Henry Huntington, a man who built his fortune from trams and railroads at the turn of the century and established a famous library and botanical garden here beneath the San Gabriel mountains that still attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. He deliberately named San Marino after the secluded principality in central Italy, the last independent city-state in the world.

Originally the rules in San Marino were stricter still - so worried were Huntington and his friends to deter unsightly crowds that they inadvertently banned churches along with all other public gathering places (an oversight corrected in 1940). Although alcohol was always available for consumption at home, it was not authorised in restaurants until last year.

Over the years San Marino's core population of white Protestants from the downtown elite has given way to an influx of new money including, most strikingly, prosperous families of Asian origin. But attitudes have remained the same. "We still like to think of ourselves as the landed gentry," said Mr Santley.

Which is not to say there isn't room for friction. Warren Pedersen, a retired engineering geologist sweeping leaves off his front lawn, explained how his gentlemanly offer to pay for his neighbour's tall eucalyptus trees to be trimmed (to avert possible storm damage to his roof) nearly ended in tears.

"The police said my neighbour had violated a rule protecting branches of more than four inches in diameter and threatened to take her to court. I had to step in to explain what had happened," Mr Pedersen explained. "People take trees pretty seriously around here."

To help new residents through the labyrinth of rules and regulations, the city has produced a guidebook on the main points. It's a hefty volume that explains how front yards may only be 35 per cent cemented over, how political stickers and neon signs are banned, and how vehicles may not be advertised for sale anywhere within the city limits. As a memory aid, there is even a pictorial summary. The summary is entitled: "Do's and don'ts." And it is subtitled: "Mostly don'ts."

Andrew Gumbel

Comments