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Museum Gives Back Some Land

Centennial Heritage, which has leased the 13-acre farm parcel from Santa Ana Unified, agrees to provide part of it for a high school campus.

August 28, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

From where Tim Rush stands, the nearly six-year battle to preserve what he calls one of the few remaining patches of open land in a city crammed with houses, apartments and people was worth it.

Rush and other board members from the Centennial Heritage Museum will sign an agreement today with the Santa Ana Unified School District, which wants to build a high school on a portion of the parcel in question: 13 acres of farming land the district leased to the museum for 99 years for $1 a year in 1981.

That had allowed the museum to preserve the land and provide generations of children with a firsthand look at the city's agricultural past.

But as the city's population grew, so did the number of schoolchildren. That growth fueled a debate: Which did the community need most: a high school or a museum?

The new plan offers something for everyone, say both sides.

Under the agreement, the school district gets land for its fifth high school, which will be named Hector Godinez Fundamental High School. The museum, which used to be called the Discovery Museum, will lose two acres but will get $500,000 from the school district and will be able to develop high school curriculum that is suited for its mission.

"This lifts the cloud of potential litigation we had over the museum," Rush said, who extolled the land as a "cultural oasis," offering adults and children alike an opportunity to see what life was like 100 years ago.

John Palacio, Santa Ana school district board member, said the agreement affords needed land for the school, and the museum gets to expand its facilities. "It provides something for everyone," he said.

School construction has been a controversial issue in the district because many of its schools are overcrowded. The crushing need for schools and lack of space prompted the district to become the first in the state to build a middle school in a strip mall.

California averages 1,660 students per 40-acre high school campus; Santa Ana averages 3,000 students on 25 acres.

Established in 1983, the museum is noted for its rich wetlands, native plants and animal life, and restored 19th century Victorian homes. A high school nearby, critics said, would crowd out the museum and pose environmental concerns.

In one of the more controversial parts of the plan, the city is offering 19 acres of Centennial Regional Park to the district for its high school. In return, Santa Ana Unified will develop that portion as its sports and recreational area, which can be used by residents after school and on weekends.

Palacio called that part of the agreement beneficial to taxpayers because the city gets a fully developed park where now there's "only dirt."

But former Santa Ana council member Patricia A. McGuigan said giving up valuable parkland for a school is not in the city's best interests.

"We're very short on park land as it is," she said.

"There are parts of the city that have no access to open space. Also, picture this: you have a high school with 3,500 students milling through that park every day, and that's going to put a burden on maintenance."

The agreement, McGuigan said, also means the county will no longer designate Centennial as one of its regional parks. In three years, the county intends to phase out its half of the $250,000 annual maintenance it shares equally with the city.

The city hopes to offset that cost with fee revenue from youth teams after construction of a $1-million, all-weather youth field at Centennial Park.

Nancy Lutz, another museum board member, praised the new accord because it ends the threat of litigation by the school district.

"From the museum's perspective, the school idea was not going to go away," Lutz said. "The district threatened several times to take some of the land back, and we held them off as long as we could, but the pressure to negotiate and agree was on."

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