Gina Nordenstrom
Val Verde Activist

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, October 2, 2005
(Television interview conducted September 27, 2005)

Gina Nordenstrom     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Val Verde activist Gina Nordenstrom. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Is it true that people in Val Verde just want to be left alone?

Nordenstrom: I think that used to be the case, but I don't think that's the case anymore.

Signal: What has changed?

Nordenstrom: We have had a lot more people move in. Our house-building rate has gone up tremendously in the last three years. We have had a lot of new people. I think they want to see Val Verde get more involved with the rest of Santa Clarita. That's (the take) I have gotten.

Signal: Probably most of our viewers and readers have never been to Val Verde.

Nordenstrom: I'll venture you're right.

Signal: How would you describe Val Verde to somebody from Santa Clarita?

Nordenstrom: It's off (Highway) 126 going toward Fillmore. We're the south side of Hasley Canyon. That's how we like to describe ourselves. A lot of people would describe us differently. But we're small ... a little over 600 homes. We're quiet. We're rural. We have more land; we're not cookie-cutter. So we're more unique. I like to think of us as Topanga Canyon of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Signal: You say others would describe it differently. How would they describe it?

Nordenstrom: Well, rural. Backwoods. Not up to date. I mean, (those are) the nice things people would say. People would describe us has having huge gangs, as being a problem area. We're not. We don't have huge gangs. We have a very minor gang contingency in Val Verde. We're not backward. We're not backwoods. We're socioeconomically the same as everybody else in Santa Clarita.

Signal: It seems that every five years or so, we hear about a flare-up of activity between the gang in Val Verde and a gang in Newhall. What has been done to address the problem?

Nordenstrom: The sheriffs — and with the COPS program (Community Oriented Policing Services) that we used to have out here — the sheriffs were very active in Val Verde to police that problem. With the budget cuts from the county, we lost our COPS program. The sheriffs now have the COBRA program (Career Offender Burglary Robbery Apprehension) and (Deputies) Dan Finn, Mike Dunkle, all those guys, (Sgt.) Roger Wallace, they are wonderful. They know who any gang members are in Newhall and in Val Verde, in Lancaster — I think they know every gang member anywhere near L.A. or Santa Clarita. But they're terrific and they keep their eyes open, keep contact, I guess, with them. I don't know how they do it, but we have very little problems out there.
    We had a graffiti problem; Supervisor (Mike) Antonovich was nice enough to put together a program for graffiti abatement. ... We have very little graffiti now. (As) you said, every five years something strange will happen that will flare up, but ... what we were told is that there are 12 active gang members. So its not like we have a huge gang population.

Signal: Val Verde has traditionally been a tight-knit community. With new people coming in, do you see the sense of community diminishing?

Nordenstrom: No, because I think if you looked to buy a house in Val Verde, you're looking for something unique. It's not like you're buying in Valencia (or) Stevenson Ranch. You're looking for a different atmosphere. With that in mind, you're looking for a closer sense of community because you realize it's smaller out there.
    The new people we've got are volunteering, they're interested, they want to be involved. So maybe you have to be a unique person to live out there, but once you're there, the sense of community does enfold you.

Signal: Tell us about yourself and your husband, Dan.

Nordenstrom: Dan is a general contractor and owns Norcon development. We do custom remodeling and custom home building. I do the office work and run his books. Aside from that I volunteer; Dan is on the board of the Sam Dixon (Community Health Center). We've both volunteered in Val Verde for 10 or 12 years in just about any capacity you could possibly want to think about. But right now we're focusing our attentions on the Senior Center and the Sam Dixon clinic.

Signal: Tell us about the Val Verde Community Benefits Funding Committee.

Nordenstrom: That was set up as a part of an agreement between the (Chiquita Canyon) Landfill and Newhall Land, over the landfill expansion. Everybody thinks that the biggest, most important thing to Val Verde was getting the money we get every year. It wasn't. We got 34 mitigations from the landfill — to close earlier, to take less trash, to watch the pollution, to do a lot of things that were important to us, that were more important than the money. The money was a side benefit.

Signal: What was the issue with the landfill? It's right next door to Val Verde —

Nordenstrom: In 1992 they put together an EIR (environmental impact report) and hearings and everything because they wanted to expand for 60 years, and I can't remember how many millions of tons of trash.

Signal: That's where almost all of the Santa Clarita Valley's trash goes.

Nordenstrom: Oh, yes. Either this or the Sunshine Canyon Landfill in (Granada Hills). I met Ruth Griffin and Merry Farmer, who had started what was called CACCLE, which was the Citizens Against the Chiquita Canyon Landfill Expansion. We started working with them — that's how Dan and I started (with) volunteering, is by working with that group. It took until 1997, but we finally put together an agreement where the landfill would only remain open for 22 years (and) they would only take out X-amount of tons of trash, and again, these 32 other mitigations. ... Part of it was setting up the Community Benefits Funding Committee, which administers the money for the community to better the community and better the residents' lives.

Signal: The landfill gives the community something like $250,000 a year, right?

Nordenstrom: Right. Because Newhall Land at that point owned the land, it was split, originally: Newhall Land paid half (and) the landfill paid half. When Newhall Land sold (the land), now Republic pays the entire thing. But it was $250,000, with a 2-percent increase every year. So I think we're up to about $280,000 a year now.

Signal: What has Val Verde been doing with this money?

Nordenstrom: We've set up scholarship programs, we've set up after-school tutoring for all the kids, we've worked with the Boys and Girls Club, the park — boy, all kinds of things.

Signal: That's a big chunk of change for a community of Val Verde's size. It sounds like the landfill must subsidizing a lot of community activities.

Nordenstrom: It is — but it doesn't, because a lot of the money is held in the trust. There are specific things that the money can and cannot be used for. In other words, we cant just go out and have a party every week because that's what everyone wants to do. There are guidelines — public safety, public health, senior citizens programs, at-risk youth programs, things like that. It's not just, OK, let's go out and spend it on this. There are guidelines set in place for that money.

Signal: Walk us through the history of Val Verde. How far back does it go?

Nordenstrom: Late 1920s, early '30s, is my understanding. I got my history of Val Verde from Elijah Canty, who is a dear friend, who is 94. Ten years ago, 12 years ago, he started talking to me and Dan about Val Verde. It was the black Palm Springs. It was founded, I believe, by a minister and his daughter for the wealthier blacks who could not get into the country clubs (in Los Angeles), as a Palm Springs (type of) resort area.
    My understanding is, in the '50s, the migrant farmers came in rented some of the smaller places, to have access to work in the fields. In the '70s and '80s the Caucasians came in, started to do the transition, so now we're a pretty mixed up little community.

Signal: The 1990 Census showed about 51 percent Hispanic, 33 percent non-Hispanic white.

Nordenstrom: That's about right. ... It's done a complete turn-around.

Signal: Who are the Val Verde residents? What do they do?

Nordenstrom: We're a varied group. People I know who have lived out there, whom I've known for 10 or 15 years, own their own businesses; are now retired, some of them — but most of them are small business owners. ... Ralph and Patti Gustafsson, perfect example. Patti is a schoolteacher, a substitute schoolteacher now, because she would like to retire. Ralph trains racehorses, and they have horse ranch. But they have lived there for 20 years. So they've seen everything. But they have always had their own business.
    It's the same as everywhere else. There's every type of person. The only difference is, again, I would think you would have a unique person who wants that sense of (a) small community.

Signal: Don't you have a number of people who work for or graduated from CalArts? An art colony, of sorts?

Nordenstrom: We do, because we do have a lot of places that are rental units, that are more inexpensive than the rest of the Santa Clarita Valley. The CalArts students find it a nice place to work and live, and also you don't have the objections — if they're practicing music late, things like that — we're a little more lenient. Granted, there are (some) people, and it sometimes gets annoying at (midnight) or 1 a.m., but that's anywhere.

Signal: The average Santa Clarita resident picks up sticks after five years. Do people stay longer in Val Verde?

Nordenstrom: I think so. Dan and I are planning on retiring there. I think it's one of those communities where ... if you love it, you stay; if you don't like it, then you're out of there pretty quick.

Signal: You're on the development side of things, being a general contractor —

Nordenstrom: Of course.

Signal: Is there a group of people in Val Verde who want to stop growth?

Nordenstrom: There is a contingent who would rather not see any growth. And to be perfectly honest, part of me would like to see no growth, and not see Val Verde change at all. But the practical aspect is, Santa Clarita needs housing. We have room to grow, as long as it's responsible growth. We don't want our hillsides trashed. We don't want sewer. We're on septic, which keeps the building more responsible.

Signal: You don't want to be on sewer?

Nordenstrom: That's a debate with the community, too. Most of the streets in Val Verde are too small to support sewer, so it's kind of a yes and no; part of the community will probably eventually go on sewer, but part of it will be impossible. But we don't want to see our hillsides razed and sorry Stevenson Ranch cookie-cutter little houses up there. We do want to see responsible growth — nice, larger than 5,000 square-foot pads.

Signal: Is there a minimum lot size?

Nordenstrom: We do have the Community Standards District that was passed; 10,000 square feet is the minimum — I'm saying this wrong — 7,000 is the average lot size, but 10,000 is the minimum. So it's kind of like a crossover, the way it reads in the Community Standards District. If you have a small development, basically you're supposed to go to 10,000 square feet, but if you have some 15,000, 20,000, 30,000, then I guess they have to average out to 7,000 square feet. That's the way I have read it, at least. I'm not an expert by any means.

Signal: You said there about 600 homes now — and there's a development on the horizon of 200-some-odd.

Nordenstrom: Two-hundred thirty homes, Sterling Gateway. Hunt Williams and his family. His grandfather bought the land 50 (or) 60 years ago. He had oil rigs out there. He owned a lot of what was Val Verde now before, and sold off part of it but kept this parcel and envisioned kind of a new, growing Val Verde. His family is now in the planning stages of putting together this development.
    I think it's going to be a responsible development. It's fitting in with the (Community Standards District). He's working with the community right now. I'd love to see — I've seen some of the architectural renderings, and I think it's going to be great. But he is still getting community input. So as long as that's happening, and he is doing it responsibility, I am for it.

Signal: A 230-home project is moderate in Santa Clarita, but for a community with only 600 homes today, that's a significant increase. How do other people feel about it?

Nordenstrom: Well, we have a mixed group. There are a lot of people who are in favor of it, and again it's going to be done in phases. It's not going to be all just, BOOM, here are 230 houses. If you add them 50 or so at a time over a few years, it would be a more gradual. I know of 20 houses that have gone in last year, and they have been absorbed.

Signal: To your east, Hasley Canyon has been growing lately, and Newhall Ranch will be coming down Highway 126. What does Val Verde look like in 10 years?

Nordenstrom: Boy, we look like were surrounded. We look like the little guy on the totem pole.
    I think we need to assimilate gracefully, without giving up our identity. I think there is room for growth in Val Verde and room to accept some growth, but I think it has to be assimilated gracefully or — people are, in Val Verde, very protective. We are the little guys. But you know, we did the David-and-Goliath thing with the landfill and kind of got what was wanted. So I think if it gets too crazy, the people in Val Verde will go, nuh-uh.

Signal: Val Verde is in the jurisdiction of the Castaic Area Town Council; how does that relationship work? Castaic and Val Verde seem like two different areas.

Nordenstrom: Well, actually, we've had our problems with the Castaic Area Town Council in the past. Right now it's working quite well. We have two great representatives for Val Verde, Patti Gustafsson, whom I mentioned before, and Bruce Van Wetter, who's a fairly new resident. He has only been out in Val Verde for five or six years. But they are both responsible. They're both great. The Town Council makeup right now is very responsive to all of Castaic.
    The problems we had before, in the past, were that Val Verde was kind of shoved off to the side. Because we weren't part of Castaic proper, we didn't matter in a lot of the decisions they were making. I think they kind of put us on a side burner. But that's not happening anymore. I like the Town Council makeup right now. It's good people.

Signal: It seemed Val Verde was having some trouble finding representatives to serve on the Town Council at one point.

Nordenstrom: We had a period in 1999-2000 where our Town Council representative, who had just been elected, was leaving town. We ended up with a new Town Council rep who, due to his health, had to quit six months later. So at that point, yes — Val Verde is small, and you know, when you're a volunteer, you have to make time to be a volunteer. You don't just say, oh, OK, I will do it, and then not show up. You have to make time out of your day. So, yes. We did kind of have a shaky period, but that's when Bruce stepped up, and it's been great.

Signal: It looks like the county is finally putting some money into Val Verde Park. That was a fight.

Nordenstrom: Well, let's see. Back in 1992 we got the Proposition A funds, and I think in '96 we got the Measure A funds or whatever they were. Supervisor Antonovich, a few years later, matched it, or gave us $300,000 to help do the engineering design. Things just kept getting pushed onto the back burner. We got some maintenance that we have been waiting for.

Signal: So you got the money but it wasn't spent.

Nordenstrom: It's never been spent. But it's — going through the transitions of the county, and I think part of the problem was, the park went through transitions of personnel. We had a park director, and then he would go, OK, we're going to do this. Well, six months later he was gone; new park director, new set of plans, new set of ideas. That happened three or four times. So we did get, two years ago, three years ago, the general maintenance the park desperately needed. The park had been not maintained for about 40 years.
    So we are finally getting just about what we want. It's not exactly, but at this point, it's close enough to where we are happy with what they are doing.

Signal: Are upgrades actually going to be made now?

Nordenstrom: Yes. In fact, my understanding from (Antonovich deputy) Millie Jones is that it's being put out to bid in the next month, with plans for starting next year.

Signal: Last winter, while everybody was watching the Polynesian Mobile Home Park float down Newhall Creek, weren't you having some problems of your own?

Nordenstrom: Oh, yeah. We were landlocked for three days. If you went out of Val Verde, you weren't allowed back in. If you were out of Val Verde, forget it. You weren't going home...
    We were out digging people out, getting sandbags, getting what reinforcements we could locally, because the same way as in the earthquake, Val Verde gets cut off, we get cut off. There are only two ways in, and both of them have dippy creeky areas. ... We do rely on ourselves, and we had great response from the community. But we did have some terrible slides. Lost some houses, lost a lot of back yards. Had a great deal of mud and debris and yuck to clean up. But everything is — not everything is back to normal, but everything is cleaned up and running again.
    Dan worked very hard on the flood control for the community for several years, and a lot of things he had finally talked the county into doing had been put into place, which helped. Some of the top of San Martinez (Canyon Road) the drainage up there and at the bottom helped a lot. There is still more than needs to be done, but we'll work with the county on that.

Signal: As the area grows and, like you said, you have to adapt to being surrounded by homes, do you foresee eventually joining the city of Santa Clarita?

Nordenstrom: No, I don't. Not as least for Val Verde. I don't know what the rest of Castaic will end up doing, but Val Verde — No. 1, the city of Santa Clarita doesn't really want us. We don't exactly have the huge tax base they would like to see.

Signal: Is that what it is about?

Nordenstrom: Well of course. Because if they are going to provide services for us, they are going to want the money to provide those services. It's a basic economic issue. But I think overall, with us being landlocked on the one side by Newhall Ranch and then by the Commerce Center — yeah, they would love to have the Commerce Center. I mean, that's why the county wants it. That's where the money is, the tax base. So I don't see (it). I see Val Verde kind of sitting back in this fray and letting everybody argue it out. But I still see us ultimately with the county.
    Mike Antonovich has been wonderful to us. He has always had, I guess, a soft spot for Val Verde. He has always been there when we actually really needed something. I mean, the day he could get into Val Verde after the floods in January, he was there, finding out what he can do and helping us out. We have got a soft spot for him, and he has got a soft spot for us. It's kind of a nice fit.

Signal: What are the big non-profit organizations that are doing things for people in Val Verde?

Nordenstrom: First and foremost, the biggest non-profit that helps Val Verde is the Sam Dixon clinic. They have the clinic based in Val Verde, along with their Canyon County and Newhall offices. They have provided services for Val Verde for 35 years and they are always there for us. Dan is on the board now, for the past three years; I helped them with their fund-raising efforts.
    G-G Industries has offered to sponsor what they are calling Golftoberfest. It's a brand-new — I think it's so hysterically fun — it's a brand-new idea: A glow in the dark golf tournament at Vista Valencia. You play nine holes; the tee boxes glow, the holes — I am not a golfer; I would still think it would be fun — and the balls glow. You have a little necklaces. It sounds like incredible fun. There is going to be bratwurst and beer, because of course it's Oktoberfest, or Golftoberfest. It's going to be a great time.
    The date is Oct. 28, Vista Valencia, and it starts at 5 o'clock. We will have an auction. For tickets and details call 678-5113. Individual tickets and foursomes are available, as well as sponsorships.

Signal: What else is going on?

Nordenstrom: My other favorite charity that Jo Anne Darcy got me involved with is — Brad Berens and the Santa Clarita Valley Committee on Aging — the Wine Auction that benefits the Meals on Wheels (program) is Oct. 15 at Le Chene (French Cuisine restaurant). It's going to be a wonderful time. ... Call the Senior Center at 259-9444.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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