To the untrained eye, the area of Costa Mesa's Fairview Park near the cliffs offers sweeping ocean views, but the grounds themselves may not look like much.
It's a mesa of dirt, brush, trails, mounds and rocks among bicycle tracks, footprints and paw prints.
But within that dusty medley on a recent afternoon, a pair of archaeologists found themselves uncovering a more subtle history.
Eyes focused on the ground, Patricia Martz and Sylvere Valentin saw ancient tools where others saw rocks. They identified a piece of a mammal bone, possibly 1,000 years old.
Martz, a professor emeritus of archaeology and anthropology at Cal State Los Angeles, saw sea shells — scattered white specks on a brown surface — as evidence of a Native American diet.
To anyone else, the specks might seem like inconsequential broken shells — in dirt.
"That's a clam shell," Martz said, pointing to the ground. "That's their food remains. That's their garbage. That's what archaeologists do: We dig up people's garbage to find out what they were really like."
Martz, who lives in Irvine, and Valentin, formerly an archaeologist consultant with Monrovia-based Paleo Solutions, were walking a portion of what's commonly known as the Fairview Indian Site.
The area contains remnants of two Native American cultures from thousands of years ago and, since 1972, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the only location within Costa Mesa city limits with that federal designation.
As such, what happens within the Fairview Indian Site is bound by certain environmental rules that, according to the archaeologists, may have been broken in the planning of a nearby parking lot. The lot, later downgraded to a turnaround space, would be within the park's southwestern quadrant, entered from the northern terminus of Pacific Avenue.
And while there has been no official confirmation that the boundaries of the Fairview Indian Site extend that far south, Martz and Valentin contend that they do.
"Think of your neighborhood," Martz said. "It spreads out. It's not going to be just one little area."
While standing around one of the park's flattest portions, made brown from the dry summertime conditions and prone to dust-ups from frequent winds, Martz acknowledged that it may be hard for some to say, "Oh, this is so important."
But Fairview Indian Site — one of two federally listed archaeological sites in Orange County — gains greater importance, she said, as new developments locally and nationwide destroy archaeological evidence of past eras.
However one defines preservation, it must be done, Martz and Valentin said, and the plans for Fairview Park may be impeding that goal.
"For archaeologists, it's extremely important because this site is the last one that we have that hasn't been impacted," Valentin said.
Martz couldn't help but note the ubiquitous dirt mounds, created without city permission, around the Fairview Indian Site. They're often used by adventurous cyclists as ramps.
"Hopefully, they'll do more to preserve what's left of the site," she said. "It's just so sad that we've lost so many really important sites to housing developments, and then here we have a park, where they have a really good opportunity to preserve."
The archaeological angle is the newest element in a debate over parking at Fairview Park that's gone on for months. The 208-acre park's master plan, approved in the late 1990s and later modified, called for a 10-space parking lot at the northern end of Pacific Avenue.
The Westside residential street is zoned for medium density, which permits its hodgepodge of condominiums, apartments and a few single-family homes. Some residences there have enviable views of Fairview and Talbert Regional parks and the Santa Ana River, as well as northern Orange County and the mountains.
When plans surfaced in July for a 42-space parking lot at the end of Pacific, residents and other interested parties sounded off to the Parks and Recreation Commission, saying the development would forever ruin their quiet street with additional traffic.
They also took offense — to paraphrase Joni Mitchell — at the idea of paving over a nearby slice of paradise to put up a parking lot.
The commissioners initially postponed their decision once they realized that the master plan called for only 10 spaces, not 42. In August, four of the five parks commissioners — Bob Graham dissented — voted to approve design concepts for the newly changed 10-space lot, justifying their decision by pointing to the lot's placement on the already-approved master plan. One of the commissioners called the debate an expression of NIMBYism.
An appeal by Councilwoman Sandy Genis later brought the matter to the council, a majority of whom on Sept. 17 approved a compromise: no parking spaces, only a turnaround that can be used by the public and the Fire Department. Meeting attendees didn't take well to the solution, though an informal poll by Mayor Jim Righeimer seemed to indicate that many Pacific Avenue residents would be OK with just a turnaround.
The week before, the mayor had held an informal meet-and-greet about Fairview Park issues, with the Pacific Avenue lot being the predominant topic. Many who attended had seemed satisfied with the turnaround idea, so long as there was no parking.
Before the council's vote, however, Valentin brought up his concerns about Fairview Park's Native American significance.
The Long Beach resident told the council that the turnaround and other plans would harm several archaeological sites, including the one listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
He argued that the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, should have been followed, and the Native American tribes and the California Office of Historic Preservation consulted.
"None of this has been done, as far as I know," Valentin told the council.
The city's public services director, Ernesto Munoz, later responded that the city isn't aware of any archaeological sites in that section of the park. The master plan does indicate some sites elsewhere, he said, near the large vernal pool and on the eastern end of the park.
Genis said the master plan doesn't specify the sites in order to prevent looting. The National Register listing also doesn't advertise the exact location of the Fairview Indian Site.
Furthermore, Munoz argued, any construction would require that an archaeologist be present, per the master plan. Righeimer echoed that point before the council eventually moved on to the next agenda item.
State officials get involved
Within a week of the council's decision, the California Office of Historic Preservation got wind of the matter.
In a three-page letter addressed to city CEO Tom Hatch on Tuesday, State Historic Preservation Officer Carol Roland-Nawi wrote that her office had been contacted about the potential effects to CA-ORA-58, the official name for a portion of the Fairview Indian Site. Martz, Valentin and Genis — who voted against the turnaround — also received the letter.
Among Roland-Nawi's concerns were potential "damage or destruction caused to resources through development of sites, such as construction of buildings or roads, and the problems of vandalism and 'pot-hunting.'"
She recommended "avoiding the site, rather than monitoring and the recovery of artifacts." She also said the city is relying on the archaeological site boundaries documented in 1967, 1972 and 1993. Some of those boundaries were done by Cal State Long Beach professor Keith Dixon, whose extensive research put the area on the National Register of Historic Places.
Roland-Nawi wrote that boundaries of archaeological sites are rarely definitive, but there is now evidence that the Fairview Indian Site's materials exist within the turnaround area at the end of Pacific Avenue — "much further south than originally thought."
"In fact it is likely that a village site ... extends all along the top of the bluff above the Santa Ana River in the vicinity of the park," she wrote. "We recommend that the city review current information about the location of cultural material and reexamine its proposals in order to avoid impacts."
Roland-Nawi also wrote that there is no evidence that the city consulted Native American groups. She urged consultation with the Gabrielino and Juaneño tribes, as well as the California Native American Heritage Commission, "to determine if there are sacred sites located in Fairview Park and most likely descendants."
On Wednesday, Hatch acknowledged receiving the letter but couldn't yet provide a more detailed response on its contents, saying in an email, "We are in the process of reviewing the comments and recommendations that were provided."
Munoz, the public services director, added that the city is retaining its own archaeologist to research the matter.
"As soon as that person is onboard, we'll elaborate a response and provide it," he said.
Regarding the validity of Martz and Valentin's claims, he added, "We don't want to jump to conclusions without having the expertise onboard."
Genis said that when there's pressure to get things done, sometimes "critical steps" are missed and "we could get ourselves in a lot of trouble by skipping things."
Furthermore, the whole saga "may finally lead to us actually doing some of the mitigation that we said we'd do early on," she said, "whether it's for the vernal ponds or the archaeological resources or whatever. Even though it seems like a big mess now, in the long run it may be better for the park, I'm hoping."
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, who voted in favor of the turnaround, said he saw the state's letter and believes that the city will follow the proper procedures, per Righeimer's direction.
Mensinger and Genis both said they would be OK with a Native American museum in the park if the Fairview Park advisory committee was in favor. It's a notion that was brought up recently and also during discussions years ago about park additions.
Mensinger, however, questioned the timing of the debate, especially since the issues were hashed out years ago.
"Most of these questions have arisen because the council is finally enacting the recommendations the Fairview Park committee made 10 years ago," he said. "It makes me wonder where some of the vocal critics have been on these issues. Where were they for the last 10 years?"
'From seeds to beef'
Within the Fairview Indian Site's boundaries, as listed on the master plan, is signage that tells of the area's historical significance.
"You are standing on top of a bluff where people have lived for at least 3,000 years," it reads.
The sign, titled "From seeds to beef," gives a brief rundown of how the park was also later used by European settlers for cattle grazing.
Closer to the main Fairview Park parking lot is more signage, probably written in 2009, that notes the park's 1972 inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. It also mentions that mystifying "cogged stones" have been found within the park.
Martz said those stones have only been uncovered in nearby Bolsa Chica and on the northern coast of Chile — a large geographical difference that further adds to their mystery.
As she and Valentin headed back, they noted that even some safety railings, recently added along the park bluffs, may have violated CEQA guidelines. The poles had to be dug into the ground, which disturbs the soil.
"What if they went through a skull?" Martz asked. "It's just a culturally sensitive area."
She and Valentin are bringing the matter to the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, a small Irvine-based nonprofit formed in 1998. Martz is the group's president.