County Orders Study of Desert Wetlands Site Slated for Development
The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission requested further study Wednesday of a proposed development site just south of Palmdale that includes the Barrel Springs wetlands, which conservationists are fighting to preserve because of the area’s ecological, historical and archeological significance.
In ordering a study of plant and animal life on the site, commissioners delayed action until Oct. 11 on an appeal by residents of a hearing officer’s decision approving the owner’s plan to subdivide the site. The owner, Stan Sevilla of Pacific Palisades, plans to build eight homes on plots ranging from five to 16 acres between Avenue T-8 and the California Aqueduct.
The 63-acre site includes about 18 acres of spring-fed wetlands, home to a variety of Joshua and juniper trees and habitat for birds, small mammals and snakes. It was used by pioneers and Indians as an oasis in the desert.
Valuable Desert Oasis
Commissioners followed the recommendation of the county planning staff, which cited letters from the state Department of Fish and Game and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service opposing any alteration of the area and calling it a unique and valuable desert oasis.
The decision bolstered a spirited campaign by Jim McAvoy, president of North Los Angeles County Citizens for Controlled Growth and Responsible Government, who lives near Barrel Springs.
McAvoy said further study will convince county officials that even low-density housing would endanger the wetlands, where he and his allies say a park should be created.
“It’s such a sensitive and such a unique area that it has to be preserved,” he said.
In reply, Sevilla said he hopes that the biological study will show that his plan to build the homes would not harm the site, where he said illegal dumping and loitering are a problem.
“We don’t feel we’re the bad guys in this,” he said. “We’ll actually be enhancing the wildlife” by cleaning up debris and pollution and digging a lake.
Sevilla said he believes that his opponents are exaggerating the ecological value of the area.
But in a letter last month to county planning officials, Fred Worthley, regional manager of the Department of Fish and Game, said the county’s initial study of the site last year “did not accurately state the location of the site or that the site contains wetland habitat.”
After complaints by concerned residents, state and federal wildlife officials took issue with the county’s conclusion that the project would not have an impact on the environment. They said the county failed to recognize the value of a desert wetland containing a natural spring and varied plant and animal life.
Both federal and state officials recommended that the area be protected by designating it a “Significant Ecological Area” with stringent limitations on land use.
County officials said they have updated the information in their initial study, which they said was based on information supplied by Sevilla, and on their maps.
Frank Kuo of the county Planning Department said the biological study ordered by the commission Wednesday will help planners evaluate the state and federal recommendations regarding Barrel Springs.
Development of the wetlands is also opposed by the Antelope Valley Historical Society, the Antelope Valley Archeological Society and the California Indian Council, all of which believe that a park would better preserve the area’s cultural value along with its natural resources.
The strategic location of the oasis near mountain passes connecting the high desert to coastal areas has made it a hub of human activity for thousands of years. Archeological finds at the site show that human presence in the valley dates back 5,000 years, the oldest human habitations found in the area, according to a recent study.
Barrel Springs was a trading center and meeting place for southern Antelope Valley Indian tribes and tribes from the coastal and interior areas, said anthropologist David Earle.
The spring was crucial to pioneers, Earle said. In the 1850s, survivors of pioneer parties that blundered into Death Valley sometimes reached Barrel Springs more dead than alive, he said. The spot also served as a stagecoach station in later years.
“Our real fond hope is that the oasis area is so unique, not only naturally but historically, that it will be turned into a park for recreation and education,” Earle said. “It would give the community a sense of what is unique about living in the desert. We think it really would be a crime for it to be destroyed.”