Leon Worden

Angels or asphalt in the outfield?

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, September 23, 1998

ity officials have made assurances that the first phase of the Central Park in Saugus will be built, and the placement of traffic controls and signage last week seemed to clinch it. But the big question still remains: Will a major road run through the park one day? And will homes be built there?

The controversy flared when the Center City Steering Committee, whose members are the city of Santa Clarita, the Castaic Lake Water Agency and The Newhall Land and Farming Co., "unanimously agreed to recommend consideration of park alternatives," according to an Aug. 31 letter from committee chairman and city parks director Rick Putnam to the CLWA.

The concern is that the Central Park, slated for construction by the city on a 137-acre parcel owned by CLWA, might not happen quite the way the public and the City Council thought it would. The decision of the committee to explore "alternatives" to a park throws the future of the park into doubt.

Some members of the committee don't want to change the park plans. CLWA General Manager Robert Sagehorn was absent from the Aug. 19 meeting at which it was decided to explore alternatives. Therefore, Sagehorn said, "I think it was improper to say it was a unanimous vote."

At issue is the alignment of the future Santa Clarita Parkway and a potential swap of parkland for riverfront property owned by Newhall Land, with Newhall Land building homes on the Central Park site and a park going in on the Newhall Land property.

During park master plan discussions over the last two years, public participants recommended that Santa Clarita Parkway run along the western edge of the property so it wouldn't interfere with ball fields and other park amenities. That plan was approved by the City Council. So far the city has spent $40,000 on the master plan, approximately $300,000 for a water hookup and $350,000 on the blueprints for Phase 1, in addition to $330,000 for its share of the work of the Center City committee.

Under one scenario that the committee decided to explore Aug. 19, the road would bisect the phase-one soccer and baseball fields. CLWA doesn't want a road to bisect the park and doesn't want homes built there, board President Bill Cooper said. He said CLWA is opposed to building anything other than a park on the site because the land is needed as a buffer between its Rio Vista water treatment plant and nearby homes.

Sagehorn said the plant treats water with chemicals such as chlorine gas — the chief agent in mustard gas, used in World War I — and it wouldn't be a good idea to build homes below it. "The chemicals are enclosed, and we take all safety precautions. But those are mechanical things, and airplanes fall out of the sky," Sagehorn said.

Asked why the city was going ahead with the first phase of the park if it might be displaced by a road, Putnam said it could be eight or 10 years before the road is built, and at least the public would get "eight or 10 good years of use" out of the ball fields in the interim. Moreover, Putnam said that during the master planning of the park it was never "promised" that the road would go in one place or the other.

Paula Berriz, secretary of the SCV Youth Sports Association and a participant in the park planning, said, "(At first) we were told a road would never impact the park. Then we were told there was going to be a road. First it was going to be two lanes and then it was going to be six.

"My question is, if the council approved (the park) — twice — why are we proceeding in this manner?" Berriz said.

Berriz said she was "totally taken by surprise" when she learned that a road might bisect the park and that the parkland might be swapped with adjacent Newhall Land property. "But I'm not invited to every (Center City) meeting, so I don't know what happens in between." Berriz is a member of the Center City committee.

Mayor Jan Heidt told Cooper publicly that she "agreed with (him) very strongly" about maintaining the CLWA property as parkland. Mayor Pro Tem Jo Anne Darcy later added, "Several months ago I told staff I didn't want the (Central Park) plan changed."

Asked how the current discussions came to her attention, Councilwoman Jill Klajic said, "(City staff) came into my office and said to keep an open mind" about land use alternatives in the center city area. "I think we need to decide right now where the road is going to go," she said.

Klajic is right. Deciding now where the road will go, and reaffirming the council's commitment to use the CLWA property for a Central Park as planned, would end speculation about the future of the property.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's special sections editor.

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