Commentary: Culture at Bolsa Chica must be preserved

June 12 was a good day for the Bolsa Chica mesa and wetlands.

The California Coastal Commission held a standing-room-only hearing in the Huntington Beach council chambers to determine whether the decades-old land use designation for the Ridge parcel should be changed from parkland to residential.

This 5-acre site is on the southeast corner of Bolsa Chica Road and Los Patos Avenue and offers sweeping views from Saddleback to the coast. The rezoning application was withdrawn in the face of commissioner and public opposition after three hours of testimony and deliberation. Any future development of the site will need new approval from the City Council.

The site doesn't look like much today. It sits behind a rusting chain link fence, having had gravel dumped onto it and all vegetation removed through scraping and herbicide spraying. But a rich history lies beneath the surface.

The Ridge and the adjacent 6-acre Goodell parcel to the south are the last remnants of a large prehistoric village complex dating back 9,000 to 2,000 years (older than the Egyptian pyramids) — one that remains sacred to Native Americans.

According to the Coastal Commission staff report, development of the adjacent Brightwater tract to the west unearthed "approximately 160 human burials and 31 animal burials, 25 semi-subterranean structures (house pits with hearths, storage sheds, and ceremonial structures with a dance floor), fire-affected rocks and other rock artifacts, shell and rock cairns, and well over 100,000 beads, charm stones, tools and other artifacts."

The report also notes that "…of the Native American and animal burials and prehistoric features that were discovered on the Bolsa Chica Mesa, more than 70% of them were found outside of the boundaries of the recorded archaeological sites."

Thus it is virtually certain that additional burials exist on the Ridge and Goodell sites. Many Native Americans spoke poignantly during the hearing to request that their ancestors' final resting places be treated with dignity and left undisturbed.

The Coastal Commission has found the Ridge and Goodell owners in violation multiple times for conducting excavations without permits. The most recent incident involved the excavation of a prehistoric house pit and other cultural items straddling the two sites.

Last September, the commission negotiated a consent order requiring Signal Landmark and the Goodell family pay $600,000 to promote the preservation of Native American cultural resources in coastal Orange County, and establish a "cultural site" costing at least $200,000 on one of the properties that can be used by Native Americans for "ceremonial and reflection purposes." As of last week's public hearing, the consent order has not yet been fulfilled.

Earlier this year, the City Council directed staff "to study adding [the Ridge and Goodell] sites to its Parks Master Plan that would include recommendations for outside funding for acquiring those sites for a new park." I fully support the city pursuing acquisition of these two important sites for preservation of 9,000 years of human history and as a place of quiet contemplation for future generations.

MARK BIXBY is a Huntington Beach Planning Commissioner.

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