After 20 years of debating the fate of the Koll Real Estate Group development planned for the Bolsa Chica wetlands area, some new uncertainty has appeared in a proposal that was looking like a sure thing.
This month, the Seal Beach City Council has gone on record against the development that will contain more than 4,000 homes, citing an increase in traffic along Pacific Coast Highway. And the host council in Huntington Beach decided to call on the county to produce a new environmental impact report, citing a host of perceived problems with the existing one.
With all that, perhaps nothing was quite so dramatic as the debate over the discovery of about 20 concentrations of bones, and the acknowledgment this month by the Orange County coroner's office that it will be months before a determination can be made on whether these are human or animal remains.
While it would be better to have an answer sooner than later, this matter must be resolved satisfactorily before anything is approved.
A group of Native Americans argues that the 7.4-acre site parcel may once have been a prehistoric burial site. And the revelation in news reports last month that an archeologist working for the Koll Real Estate Group found the bone fragments in 1992 raised new, as yet unresolved, questions about the development. Last week, the City Council voted to ask for a grand jury investigation into Koll's handling of the bone fragments.
That may not be necessary, but neither would it be acceptable to proceed with development until questions about the bones are answered. While state law does not rule out the destruction of Native American cemeteries, it obviously would be a terrible injustice and violation of sacred land, even if done inadvertently.
It should never come to that. The project should be reconfigured if necessary to ensure protection of the site. Or, if these are animal bones, let the project go forward as may be appropriate. At the very least, development plans should err on the side of respect for the history of the land.
Public pressure alone may persuade the county to require big changes in the project, in order to save it. The best approach for now is to determine as quickly as possible what the site actually is. Beyond that, the best advice is to go slowly on the project.
One question is why it has taken so long for the confirmation of bones, one set of which is believed to be about 8,000 years old.
The coroner's office has acknowledged the existence of a map that came to light last month, even though a forensic anthropologist hired by the office examined the bones found there in 1992. Judy Myers Suchey, a faculty member at Cal State Fullerton, said that the handful of bones she had seen were very old, about 8,000 years old, and were of interest to archeologists.
Project opponents point out that no mention of the find had been made in the county's draft environmental impact report released last year, and it has fueled concern.
At this point, there is no reason to doubt the credibility of Tom Mathews, director of planning for the county's Environmental Management Agency, which oversaw preparation of the EIR. He said that the discovery was not mentioned in the document because there had not yet been any scientific confirmation of its significance.
What the county must do is be certain that it closely monitors the investigation to be certain that the questions about the bones are properly addressed.