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Valley Perspective

Historical Site Too Valuable to County to Be Held Hostage

Newhall Land should turn over parcel, no strings attached

November 10, 1996

In the summer of 1769, a short, fat friar named Juan Crespi noted in his journal that a flat spot just north of modern Valencia, with its cooling winds and expansive views, might someday make an ideal place for a mission. The mission was built instead in San Fernando, but the spot scouted by Crespi was nonetheless developed by the Catholic church in 1804 as an outpost of two adobe buildings--the first white outpost in northern Los Angeles County. After the missions were secularized, the compound served as headquarters for the local rancho.

Nearly two centuries later, another developer owns the land, considered one of the region's most significant archeological sites because it is among the few that remain largely untouched by modern intrusions. The giant Newhall Land & Farming Co. promises to hand over the eight-acre site that includes the Asistencia San Francisco Xavier to an archeological trust, but only if its plans to build the 25,000-house Newhall Ranch on surrounding land are approved by Los Angeles County officials--a move that critics have appropriately recognized as cultural blackmail.

The modern land-use approval process is full of give and take. Developers routinely ask for more than they think they can get. And regulatory agencies demand more than is reasonable in exchange. Somewhere in the process, both sides get as fair a deal as is possible and, with any luck, a project gets built without a lawsuit. Along the way, both sides offer concessions to sweeten the deal. In this case, though, the sweetener is a piece of the region's history. For Southern California, where carwashes and diners qualify as cultural monuments, truly historic spots such as the Asistencia are rare commodities that ought not be used as bargaining chips.

As a developer with deep roots in the Santa Clarita Valley, Newhall Land & Farming should take the high road in this case and surrender the site without strings attached. To be sure, Newhall Land has every right to do with its land whatever is within the law. But Newhall Land knows that developing the Asistencia site probably would be prohibitively expensive because the company would be required to excavate the site prior to any construction and protect archeologically significant finds. In other words, it could well be cheaper to give the land away than to develop it. Donating the land allows the company a tax deduction and could generate considerable goodwill that will be helpful when the project ultimately comes up for review. Holding history hostage only guarantees a future of ill will.

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