A state coastal agency could decide soon whether Huntington Beach can rezone a site in the Bolsa Chica mesa, an area that opponents say is home to Native American artifacts and remains, to allow for a housing development.
The California Coastal Commission is set to vote Jan. 8 on whether the city can amend its Local Coastal Program — local governments' guide to development in the coastal zone — to allow for new homes on the northwest portion of Bolsa Chica.
In a report, commission staff recommends denying amendments because the changes would "eliminate a higher priority land use designation and does not assure that significant culture resources and sensitive habitats will be protected" under the California Coastal Act. The move would also violate a part of the Local Coastal Program that the commission has already approved.
The Bolsa Chica Land Trust has argued, along with residents and others, that the development would destroy 9,000 years of Native American cog stones and artifacts.
Amigos de Bolsa Chica President Tom Livengood declined to comment on the issue, and Bolsa Chica Conservancy Executive Director Grace Adams could not be reached by press time.
"The trust absolutely agrees with the commission staff, that as submitted, the project needs to be denied," said board member and City Councilwoman Connie Boardman.
The council in 2010 approved changing the land use designation of a 5-acre parcel known as the Ridge, at the southeast corner of Bolsa Chica Street and Los Patos Avenue, from open park space to residential use.
Property owner Signal Landmark and developer Hearthside Homes planned to build 22 "green" homes on the site.
The land trust sued the city and the developer in 2010 to stop the project and force a proper analysis of its potential effects. The lawsuit is on hold under a mutual agreement among the three parties until coastal commissioners hear the issue, Boardman said.
"Sadly, [Native Americans] didn't leave gold-laden tombs or majestic monuments," land trust Executive Director Kim Kolpin said, comparing the Ridge site to the treasures of Egypt. "What they left here, though, was the story of early civilization here in North America."
She added that the most appropriate way to study the artifacts would be to leave them where they are. Removing the items from the site would reduce its significance and value, Kolpin said.
"This predates Stonehenge. This predates the pyramids," she said. "And [developers] are going to destroy it to put a couple of houses on it?"
Boardman said J. Daniel Rogers, former North American archaeology division head for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., has said that the Ridge property is a "site of international significance."
Though the site is known for harboring a wealth of cultural knowledge, Kolpin said getting help from the government is difficult.
The Tongva and Juaneño people, who consider Bolsa Chica to be sacred, are not federally recognized. Additionally, private property rights in California do not favor preservation efforts, she said.
When the council reviewed the plans in 2010, city staff, citing Scientific Resource Surveys Inc.'s ground analyses, said it was unlikely that artifacts or remains would be found in the area.
Councilwoman Jill Hardy, then mayor pro tem, was concerned that Scientific Resource Surveys said the same thing about the Brightwater site, an adjacent development project where about 100,000 artifacts and about 200 ancient remains were reportedly found.
The company did many tests at the Ridge and still believes nothing of significance will be found, Boardman said. She added that the Coastal Commission fined the company $430,000 for doing unauthorized work on the Goodell property, a 6-acre site directly below the Ridge that also has archaeological significance.
"Just because auger holes have been dug down to a certain depth doesn't mean there's not important resources, culturally, out here," Boardman said.
She has worked to protect and preserve Bolsa Chica with the land trust since 1993, when Signal Landmark wanted to build about 5,000 homes on the wetlands.
Ideally, she would like to see the property owners of both the Ridge and Goodell sites sell the land to the land trust or another nonprofit to allow for the preservation of the area.
"That's the win-win for everyone," Boardman said. "Signal Landmark and the Goodell family could make money on their property, the Native Americans sites would be preserved … and everyone would benefit."
Ed Mountford, spokesman for the project, could not be reached for comment.
Boardman said the Coastal Commission listened to its staff when it reviewed the application for the highly debated Poseidon Water desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
"Staff did an excellent presentation and the commissioners listened," Boardman said. "I'm hopeful that they'll listen to their staff on this as well."