Despite Rancho Santa Margarita’s Stepford-like reputation, believe it or not, the city isn’t perfect.

City Manager Steven E. Hayman says, while RSM has been named consistently as one the “Best places to live in California,” and in the nation by many publications, it does have the occasional smattering of graffiti and the controversial 241 Toll Road.

“…nobody suggests that this is Valhalla, although there was a 1993 airing of the TV show 20-20 that literally took the angle that there must be something in our drinking water … in other words, are we too good to be true?

“Well, the answer is that we aren’t too good to be true, there are some circumstances that point to why we are regarded the way we are – both positively and negatively,” he continues. “The notion of us being a Stepford community isn’t a positive one; I don’t think for a moment that we are that type of a community.”

For example, recently listed RSM as one of the “Best 100 places to live in the entire country; it came in at 82.”

“We were categorized in communities of up to 50,000 residents – we are just under, so we are one of the largest communities that have successfully received that designation. I think that it’s attributed to a number of criteria that the survey was looking at – job growth, income, increases in the cost of living, housing affordability, quality of schools, arts, leisure, safety, etc. …”

It isn’t the first time RSM has been on an “it list.”  In 1994, it was also named as one of the best places to live in the country by Money magazine.

“We were actually listed as the top location under 50,000, so it has been an enjoyable ride that I, as well as the City Council, and the residents, are happy and proud of,” says Hayman, who has served as City Manager since 2005. “We are a community that is located at the end of the road so to speak in Orange County, and yes, the 241 Toll Road has made it easier for us to live here and have easy access throughout the County.”

The 241 Toll Dilemma

Is that a bad thing? Not really, Hayman says. Members of the RSM community are in sync with the official position of the City, which is that it believes the 241 Toll Road should be completed and extended.

“My personal point of view falls into the category of ‘be careful for what you ask for.’ I am absolutely supportive of the City’s official position, but I do caution people to understand that with that access comes some of the problems that many communities along Interstates experience: traffic congestion and the potential for the increase in crime.”

The plan has always been to extend the 241 Toll Road for as long as he can recall and to tie it into the I-5 Freeway below San Clemente. Many have questioned if that is the best route – and while the City of RSM has supported the argument that is has been and “studied to death the point,” Hayman says it was ultimately shut down by the Coastal Commission earlier this year.

“The question remains as to what should be built to alleviate the congestion on the I-5 Freeway especially through San Clemente and South Orange County. Because whether it’s rush hour or not, it certainly feels like it is going through those communities,” he says. “There is no other alternative – there is a fair amount of acrimony in the County but the governmental agency responsible for the Toll Roads is resolute in continuing to work toward its completion. We don’t believe it is a dead issue, one day it may happen. I believe without a doubt that the people of RSM want it completed.”


And what about the other issue: Are there gangs in RSM?

“Well, even though we have been voted for the last seven years in a row as the ‘Safest City in OC and the State,’ it doesn’t mean that we have no crime,” he says. “Does it mean we have no relation to gangs? No, it does not. We do in fact have a couple of small gangs whose presence is noted and known in the higher density developments here. We keep a very close watch through the OC Sheriff’s Dept. with whom we contract for law enforcement. We continue to put public safety at the top of our list of priorities. A few years ago, we added a special enforcement team to particularly focus on gangs, gang members and to watch over the increase of parolees from the State Prison system, as well as those on probation from the County. We had to do this simply because we don’t want to find ourselves at risk from the State saying they don’t have the time to watch out for the people they have returned back into the community; we know it is our ultimate
The gangs in RSM are mostly teens and young adults and have been known on occasion to paint graffiti on buildings, Hayman says.

“Graffiti in RSM is relative, but we aren’t the San Gabriel Valley or East LA …,” he says. “… in our case, we had a spike that goes back almost a year ago but within a week, it disappeared. As soon as graffiti is up, we make an effort to have it removed in 24 hours. We also spend a good amount of time seeking to arrest the suspects of those crimes when we can find them. It is a combination of remediating the graffiti, as well as prosecuting those who have committed that crime. It just isn’t that prevalent, the first year I was here, I personally found maybe three small pieces of graffiti that some people had no clue that we even had. To this day, there are some in the community who say they never see graffiti … that’s what I mean by relative.”

On the other hand, when some areas in the community do get attacked with graffiti, the city often hears people’s outrage and “you’d think we were in the middle of LA.”

“Yes, we have some gang members, and it is disingenuous to say otherwise. It’s not like we have gang fights or other activities associated with gangs; it’s frankly very minor.”

In other words, you’re not going to see a drive-by in RSM … “If we are in a community forum and the worst thing people are talking about is an occasional tagging of graffiti, some would say that is good news because other communities are talking about murders and drive-bys.”

Future Forward

As for what lies ahead for RSM, Hayman says it’s to try and stay ahead of the budget problems, and to continue to preserve the “small town or village like atmosphere.”

“We are in good shape, but that is a relative statement, as well, because it hasn’t been without pain so far,” he says. “I am just as aware as the next City Manager that we haven’t even seen the worst of our pain and perhaps next year’s budget will be impacted even more. Even though we are as optimistic as the next group, and we see certain parts of the economy coming back, we had to make some severe reductions.”

A Return to Normalcy

Hayman says the City of RSM was able and fortunate enough to stay afloat and better than some because it established “and had a desire to save money and develop a reserves policy.”

“This year’s budget is the first time in our history that we have had to go right to those reserves and use them,” he says. “We said we put the money away for that purpose, so it would be disingenuous if we didn’t spend it in the case of an emergency. I am a firm believer in not having to pay your mortgage out of your savings. The City Council is careful in deciding how much we could use to augment the budget to keep us from making more serious cuts than we did. It was based on their recognition and belief that these are temporary circumstances and only until the recession is gone.”

He thinks many cities will be struggling more next year because of the lag in property taxes meaning the property taxes collected and distributed next year are anticipated to be lower because properties are being reassessed now.

“So, that is why that tends to lag behind sales tax. Reductions that are immediate; if people are not buying, there is an immediate impact to everyone,” he says. “We are very optimistic for what lies ahead and we are determined as a community to maintain the look, and feel that we have come to expect in this city. We have a vision to return to that normalcy.”

The writer, Debbie L. Sklar is a 20-plus year journalism veteran residing in Southern California, where she is a writer, columnist and editor for many local, regional and national publications. She is a regular contributor to and may be reached via e-mail at