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Council Hears Cemetery Dispute

Backers and opponents of building athletic fields on an Indian gravesite offer testimony before the San Juan Capistrano board.

September 01, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The controversy over a Roman Catholic high school's plan to build athletic fields on a site containing ancient Indian graves continued late into the night Tuesday, with each side offering emotional testimony before the San Juan Capistrano City Council.

The council heard testimony from tribal members, longtime San Juan residents, anthropologists and environmentalists who argued that building athletic fields for Junipero Serra High School on the property at the north end of town would threaten a sacred site. School officials and community members argued that the fields would serve not only the school, but the entire area.

"It is wrong to destroy a cemetery," said 61-year-old Jeff Jones. "To desecrate a cemetery is something Americans don't do."

Randy Collins, a Serra parent, took the opposite view. "They say this land is a sacred site. Well, what is more sacred than our children and education?"

The crowd in the small council chambers spilled outside the doors.

Four city commissions approved plans for the 29-acre site.

But the planning commission, concerned that the performing arts building that is a small part of the project was too big, rejected the proposal last month. Serra officials appealed the decision to the council.

Two factions of Juanenos prefer that the site be used for a cultural center to honor their ancestors.

David Belardes, who leads a third faction of the Juanenos, agreed to support the school after campus officials promised not to destroy any graves and to erect monuments recognizing tribal leaders.

The school, which opened last fall across the street from the contested parcel, has about 300 students.

Plans for the site include an Olympic-size pool, gymnasium, tennis courts and fields for baseball, softball, soccer and football.

The land had been zoned for office and retail use until the city gave the school tentative approval last year to build the athletic fields and a performing arts center.

Archeologists have been studying the site for years and differ on what it holds. Pat Martz, an archeologist at Cal State Los Angeles, said the tribal village dates to the 1400s when it was known as Putiidhem, the ancestral home of the Acjachemen nation. Martz believes there might be as many as 175 graves on the land.

Henry Koerper, a Cypress College professor, has studied the site for 20 years and puts the number of burial plots at seven.

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