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Let’s turn fouled land into a crown jewel

Posted: December 13, 2008 9:04 p.m.
Updated: December 14, 2008 4:55 a.m.
 
What incredible foresight the Santa Clarita City Council had a decade ago.

That's when a shady group of land speculators wanted to transform a 1,000-acre patch of dirt in the middle of our city into a Mediterranean village of 2,911 homes complete with flyover bridges and escalators to lift happy residents up the mountainside, with a new municipal palace right next door so our city leaders could look down on the rest of us from on high.

Sure, an additional 30,000 daily vehicle trips would clog one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles County.

Sure, 1.4 kids per household would overcrowd our schools.

Sure, moving tens of thousands of cubic feet of dirt would wipe out a blue-line stream.

But this was Porta Bella, after all, the "beautiful gateway."

Gateway to what, nobody really knew.

And then it happened.

Perchlorate!

It should have come as little surprise. This was no ordinary patch of land. This was the Bermite property, where folks made fireworks and rockets from the 1930s to the 1980s.

The property served its country well, providing ordnance to the military from World War II to Vietnam and beyond.

To transform the land into a magical kingdom of suburban life would take some work. For when the rocket men left, they left behind a veritable cesspool of toxic soup.

Literally. The toxins form in pools. Trichloroethylene. Tetrachloroethylene. Lead azide. Red phosphorus. Thirty or 40 more things that can kill you.

And now, perchlorate.

Perchlorate was just beginning to be understood as something that can - well, perhaps not kill you immediately, but seriously mess up your thyroid, even in low doses and especially if you're an expectant mother.

We're a family community. We can't have that.

So the City Council ruled that before so much as one speck of dirt can be moved for housing construction, the property must be thoroughly cleaned.

The Porta Bella people whined and moaned and ultimately said fine, we'll do it by the end of the decade.

Their promises were as empty as their development plans were grandiose. Drive up Golden Valley Road any day of the week and you'll see how far they got.

The council's moratorium on construction was the kiss of death for these fly-by-night operators because there was no "there" there.

The Porta Bella people were in it for the approval. They wanted to sell an approved project to merchant builders, take the money and run. And then, if a new homeowner tripped over some unexploded ordinance while digging a pool, he'd sue the city and collect, big time - because the city allowed it.

So the city didn't allow it. The developer's investors walked, and for much of the next decade, The Signal's pages were filled with the broken promises of one bogus shell company after another.

Meantime, the Castaic Lake Water Agency went to court and forced Bermite's owner, the Whittaker Corp., to pay for the cleanup of the polluted water it left behind.

That's all the road reconstruction activity you are seeing on Valencia Boulevard right now. The Castaic Lake Water Agency is laying pipe to carry perchlorate-tainted well water from near Magic Mountain Parkway to a new treatment plant near Bouquet Canyon Road and Newhall Ranch Road.

Actual water cleanup should start in May or June, all paid for by Whittaker's insurers to the tune of $100 million over 30 years.

The important thing is getting the process in place. That will satisfy one part of the city's construction moratorium.

The other part is the soil cleanup. That's what you are seeing along Golden Valley Road.
Under orders from the state, Whittaker has cleaned the first of six sections. At the current pace, the rest should be ready in six years.

Things are finally falling into place - but not without the invariable sideshows. SunCal Cos. gave us one such sideshow when it teamed up with a brownfield cleanup company, Cherokee Inc., to develop 3,000 homes and speed up the cleanup.

Perhaps we should have learned our lesson when SunCal promised a Castaic high school years ago that didn't materialize.

Sure enough, it wasn't long before SunCal was trying to convince city officials to let it build first, clean later, on the Whittaker-Bermite site.

Then, boom. The housing market collapsed, SunCal went bust and the Bermite deal was dead.

Can you imagine if the city had backed down? We'd be looking at homes on the Bermite property, inhabited by residents with no recourse other than to sue the city when the toxins made them sick - or worse.

The Porta Bella people fooled us once. Shame on them. The RFI people fooled us a second time. Shame on us. The SunCal people made it three.

Do you see a pattern here?

It's time to stop this nonsense. This laissez-faire, "whatever" approach to developing the Bermite property is getting us nowhere. The cycle of broken promises that leaves a 1,000-acre blemish in the middle of our city will never end unless we end it.

How? Economic development. Redevelopment. Call it what you will. Take this Bermite bull by the horns. Dare to dream. Imagine something wonderful for the middle of our city, then go out and get it.

Don't leave the dreaming to a would-be housing developer and wash our hands of it. We aren't the 10-year-old adolescent city we were when the Porta Bella people bamboozled us with their escalators to nowhere. We just turned 21. We need to act like responsible adults and make Bermite our problem - and a key to our future.

What do you want to see in the city's center? A world-class tourist attraction? The L.A. Convention Center Complex has far less acreage.

Something that augments our status as a film location? A Universal Studios? Or a sports facility or stadium to attract a professional sports franchise? An amphitheater? A resort?

Goodness knows we put ourselves on the map with the Amgen Tour of California, the AT&T Champions Classic and the Cowboy Festival - tourism events that come along once a year. Let's put on our thinking caps and come up with something that will shine a spotlight on Santa Clarita all year long.

Forget about 3,000 homes on this property. We've got six years to plan something amazing.

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