Leon Worden

Preservation Group Hammers City
But Misses the Nail's Head

By Leon Worden

Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003

he report is factually accurate, but its conclusion is unfair. On Wednesday the Los Angeles Conservancy gave the city of Santa Clarita and 43 other cities in Los Angeles County an "F" grade for historic preservation. The unincorporated county got a "D-".
    The Conservancy called Santa Clarita a "preservation truant" because it has "no preservation protections in place." The city, it rightly noted, doesn't have a law on the books to preserve historic landmarks; it doesn't give tax credits to private property owners who protect historic buildings; and it doesn't have a historic preservation commission or officer.
    First a word about the Los Angeles Conservancy. It's a respectable organization that does good work. Formed in 1978 to prevent the demolition of the Los Angeles Central Library, it has grown into the nation's largest regional preservation group.
    As president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society — formed three years earlier — I am pleased the Conservancy is calling attention to the need to preserve unique historic assets throughout the county.
    However, the implication that the city of Santa Clarita (or, for that matter, the county's fifth supervisorial district) doesn't give a whit about the area's history and hasn't done anything to preserve important landmarks — well, that's just not correct.
    The city's preservation efforts may not follow the Conservancy's formula, but the city has accomplished many of the same goals and is actively working with the Historical Society to accomplish the rest.
    Before I get into specifics, let me put the issue of historic preservation in Santa Clarita into perspective.
    From the time we voters formed this city in 1987, we've been fortunate to have preservation "sympathizers" in key policy-making positions. Jo Anne Darcy was a great supporter and benefactor of the Historical Society throughout her 10 years on the City Council and 20 years as Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich's local representative. Former Mayor Jan Heidt's husband was a Historical Society president. Current Councilwoman Laurene Weste is on the Historical Society board.
    At the city staff level, when Mentryville was in the line of fire, literally, two weeks ago, City Manager Ken Pulskamp didn't hesitate to turn part of a city building into a temporary antique warehouse. Our city parks director, Rick Gould, is committed to preserving the single most important historic property inside city limits — the Pioneer Oil Refinery, the first in the West.
    And in the unincorporated valley, one Historical Society member has been a particularly vital ally over the years: Supervisor Antonovich, who has enabled the society to operate Heritage Junction rent-free on a section of William S. Hart Park since 1980. Today, Antonovich has stepped in to help the society protect the old Harry Carey Ranch buildings at Tesoro del Valle.
    The problem with a list like this is that you leave out too many people. Sorry.
    Let's examine the major elements of the Conservancy's "report card."
    • How many monuments designated? The Conservancy's report says Santa Clarita has zero. That's not accurate.
    The city's first (and current) General Plan, adopted in 1991, identifies no fewer than 32 historically significant homes, buildings and sites, both inside city limits and immediately outside our municipal borders. Of those, 11 are state landmarks — most of which have physical "monuments" — such as Beale's Cut in Newhall and the Oak of the Golden Dream in Placerita Canyon. The rest are designated "city points of historical interest."
    The Historical Society has had discussions with senior Planning Department staff members about the need to update the list as the city updates its General Plan through the "One Valley, One Vision" process — and to implement policies recommended in the 1991 General Plan, including a historic preservation ordinance and guidelines to protect significant archaeological sites.
    • Ordinance to allow designation of historic landmarks and districts. The city is working with the Historical Society to develop such an ordinance.
    We would have had one more than a decade ago, but opposition from private property owners who were understandably concerned about losing rights under a "historic" designation derailed it.
    We've learned a bit over the last decade, and now the Historical Society and the city Planning Department have re-initiated the process to develop an ordinance that will offer appropriate protections for historic structures and neighborhoods in a way that will be equitable for property owners, conceivably with fee incentives.
    Also, within the last decade, the city adopted a redevelopment plan for downtown Newhall with architectural guidelines that specifically acknowledge the importance of the historic buildings there.
    • Historic preservation officer and commission. Overlooking the fact that we aren't Los Angeles and our city has exactly two full-blown commissions — planning and parks — the relationship between the city of Santa Clarita and the Historical Society is in writing.
    The General Plan calls on the city to support the Historical Society's efforts to "identify and preserve historical sites." In practice, the City Council has relied on the society to bird-dog our valley's history. A most recent example came with the approval in June of the Gate-King Industrial Park, when the council made it a condition of approval for the developer to work with the Historical Society to craft a plan to protect cultural resources on the Needham Ranch.
    In ways that can't all be enumerated here, the city has a good track record when it comes to historic preservation.
    The Los Angeles Conservancy can be thanked for calling attention to the goal of preserving the remaining things that make our tract-home-filled valley unique. We've still got some work to do — but we don't deserve an "F."

    Leon Worden is the Signal's city editor.

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