Leon Worden

Is a Taj Mahal what the people of Santa Clarita want?

Leon Worden · August 6, 1997

It's an age-old question with no clear-cut, right or wrong answer. At what point should our elected leaders do what the people want?

Roads, schools, parks, growth, crime -- they're all complicated issues in Santa Clarita. They're why we formed a city. We expect our representatives to explore the options, separate the wheat from the chaff, consider the arguments and make the best decisions they can -- even when the results aren't necessarily what we want to hear.

We are fortunate to have a City Council which, on the whole, listens intently to the community and makes reasoned decisions that improve the plight of everyone who lives here. But on certain issues you just gotta wonder. At what point -- there it is again -- at what point should our leaders throw caution to the wind and simply carry out the people's wishes?

In all the years of discussing it, I think I've met no more than about five members of the general public who wanted the City of Santa Clarita to build a new governmental compound that would include a $20 million city hall, a $42 million cultural arts center and other multi-million dollar government buildings. And yet, it sure feels as though some City Council members and city staffers are doing a full-court press to achieve that goal.

Behind the gleam in their eye is a Taj Mahal, as councilman Carl Boyer once dubbed it (although the late Signal columnist Dan Hon also claimed credit), high on a hill overlooking the western Santa Clarita Valley. It would sit on a city-owned parcel next door to the planned Porta Bella development, where the Bermite Powder Company used to manufacture explosives.

To build it in a timely fashion, the City Council would have to backtrack on its decision to wait until the entire Bermite site is cleaned of toxins before any development can begin. Somehow or another, the developer has convinced the California Environmental Protection Agency to meet later this month to determine if and how the site might be developed in phases, before it is entirely cleaned -- which can happen, under state law, only if the City Council agrees to it.

It isn't as though the city actually needs the new multi-million dollar governmental compound that our tax dollars would build and the Porta Bella project would facilitate. Our existing city hall recently won not just a state but a national award as one of the best and most functional city hall buildings in the country. Wisely managed, it will be sufficient to handle city business for at least another decade, probably longer.

Complicating the issue is the fact that a Taj Mahal isn't the only thing the city proposes to build at the old explosives plant. Some think it would be a great place for a cross-town road. New roads are certainly something the general public wants, and roads make great bait when you've got an ulterior motive.

I don't pretend to know what it would take to clean the Bermite site of all the toxic and hazardous materials that were dumped there during most of this century. For that matter, neither does Cal-EPA.

But I do remember the time I stood across the street from the place with former Signal photographer Gary Thornhill as a brush fire consumed it. The smoke that belched from the flaming trees and brush was yellow, blue and green. No kidding. Don't bother trying to convince me the ground isn't contaminated, or that it will take anything short of an act of God -- or maybe the EPA Superfund -- to clean it.

There's more. The current brouhaha over the Wiley Canyon bridge plays into the equation, too. Why is the city proposing a bridge that doesn't directly connect with ramping to San Fernando Road? Is it because the maps for Porta Bella show Wiley eventually extending and connecting with an east-west road through Porta Bella?

The tenth birthday of our city is fast approaching, and I'd like to think we've made some progress. We've got new parks and trails, better responsiveness and a lower crime rate than we probably would have had under the county. How would you like to add to the list a shiny new taxpayer-funded palace on a hill where our city employees can gaze down on us all day long? Didn't think so.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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