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Buried Mission Surfaces in Deal

Developer Offers to Preserve 1804 Site if 25,000-Home Project Is OKd

November 03, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARITA — Archeologist Dave Whitley stands on a scrub-covered, wind-swept hill, a site indistinguishable to the naked eye from dozens of other undeveloped hilltops visible from this spot in the wilds of Santa Clarita.

But for Whitley, this hilltop is a special place. In 1804, Spanish missionaries established an outpost here that marked what is believed to be the first white settlement in northern Los Angeles County. Beneath the thick mat of overgrown, brown grasses and scrubs that now obscure the ground, Whitley said, there are remains of buildings and artifacts that could reveal much about how these settlers lived.

"It's the most significant historical site that I've ever run into in northern Los Angeles County," said Whitley, who was formerly chief archeologist at UCLA.

He believes this site north of Valencia--called the Asistencia San Francisco Xavier by the Spanish--should be preserved.

And it may well be.

The owner of the property, giant developer Newhall Land & Farming Co., has announced it plans to give a total of eight acres, including the site, to the national Archeological Conservancy.

But the gift comes with an asterisk.

The donation agreement states that the land will be turned over to the conservancy only if and when Newhall Ranch, a long-planned but controversial 25,000-home development, gets all the construction permits it needs from federal, county and local authorities.

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Opponents of the project call that cultural blackmail.

"They are not saying, 'We are going to donate this land no matter what,' " said Lynne Plambeck, vice president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment.

"They are saying, 'We will donate if the project is approved. Come and support this project, which is about your history.' "

Local archeologists agreed that the site, which sits on one edge of the proposed 19-square-mile Newhall Ranch development, should be preserved, especially because it could provide new insights into how the missionaries interacted with the Indians of the area.

Whitley, who is a paid consultant to Newhall, said that if the deal fell through and future plans targeted the site for development, builders would be required by law to remove archeologically significant artifacts before construction began.

"But it would be preferable that [the site] would be preserved," Whitley said.

A Newhall executive noted that cultural and environmental enhancements are now regularly included in major development proposals. "When you are developing a project, you look for public benefits," said Gloria Glenn, senior vice president of the Newhall Ranch Co., the division overseeing the development.

"People want to know you are being responsible with your development plans."

But is there a fallback plan for the Asistencia site? What if the development does not go through?

"I don't even want to envision that," said Glenn, who has been part of the team working on the project for the last four years.

The Archeological Conservancy, headquartered in Albuquerque, is currently overseeing the preservation of 130 sites across the country and has received numerous site donations from developers in recent years. It's not unusual, said conservancy President Mark Michel, for those developers to use archeological sites as leverage in their quest for community support.

"It's part of their presentation package they put together," said Michel. For example, he said, the Weyerhaeuser timber company has made the donation of a Washington state archeological site contingent on development approval. An Albuquerque developer has offered a similar trade-off for a project in that city.

Michel said that although developers who have entered into agreements with the conservancy did not always get their entire plans approved, none so far has reneged on a site donation.

He said he believes Newhall, in particular, will make good on the gift of the Asistencia site, whatever the outcome of the approval process. "I think they are committed to seeing [the site] preserved, regardless," he said.

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Although current Newhall plans call for houses to be built within clear view of the site, Michel said encroaching civilization is sometimes a good thing for an archeologically sensitive area.

"We found that people who live near a site take a real interest in it and help protect it," Michel said. "It's the sites in remote, unpopulated areas that are much more likely to be vandalized."

The Asistencia site is extremely rare, Michel said, because most places that played a role in early California mission life have been occupied ever since, submerging the original site under later buildings. Artifacts are often taken by earlier tenants on occupied sites, he said.

"This is the only mission I know of in California where you have the original site pretty much intact," he said. "From the archeological point of view, it's loaded with material that will tell us a tremendous amount about the role of the Catholic Church with native people."

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