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Disputed Athletic Fields for O.C. School Approved

Native Americans object because of gravesites, and some neighbors dread noise and lights.

September 02, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The San Juan Capistrano City Council has approved a Roman Catholic high school's plans for building athletic fields and a performing arts center on land held sacred by members of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians.

The council voted 4 to 1 late Tuesday to approve the $75-million project at Junipero Serra High School, despite passionate objections by Native Americans, environmentalists and neighbors.

Construction could begin on the 29-acre site within months, but a Juaneno leader said Wednesday that tribal members would keep trying to protect the land, where as many as 200 of their ancestors may be buried, though archeologists differ widely on the likely number.

"We have 30 days [to legally challenge], so I still feel we'll file a lawsuit," said Damien Shilo, spokesman for one Juaneno faction that he says numbers 2,700. "It's such a core issue to us. These are our family's graves."

Shilo's group and another Juaneno faction would prefer that the site, across from the main campus, be used for a cultural center to honor their ancestors.

But David Belardes, who leads a third faction, supported the athletic complex after school officials promised not to destroy graves and to erect monuments recognizing tribal leaders. Belardes has been retained by the school to monitor the construction.

Belardes, who says he believes there are fewer than a dozen graves on the property, said the Juanenos needed to end the dispute.

"We've taken care of the dead," he said. "Now it's time to take care of the living. This is the least intrusive use we've seen on this land, so I'm happy."

Proposals for the vacant parcel, once used for carnivals and rodeos, have included a shopping center, hotel and Wal-Mart. Four City Council members agreed with Belardes that the sports center was the best use for the site, at Junipero Serra Road and Interstate 5.

"It's private property," said Councilman David M. Swerdlin, one of the four. "Sooner or later, it's going to be developed."

Councilwoman Diane Bathgate, an urban planner and environmental consultant who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the city should have held out for a better offer.

"This project is out of scale and not compatible with the [rural] character of the northwest area," she said. "I also think the project primarily serves outside residents."

The school opened last year, with 150 students. School officials say 42% were San Juan Capistrano residents. Enrollment reached about 300 this year, and nearly a third of the students were at City Hall to hear the debate Tuesday night.

In contrast to the dispute over ancient graves, residents of nearby townhouses complained that noise and the glare of lights from the sports fields would disrupt their lives.

Marc Spizziri, Serra's co-founder, said the two-year battle through the courts, five city commissions and the City Council was exhausting but educational.

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