The Gabrielino Indian confronted the developer.
"We are the Gabrielino Indians. This is our territory, in our hearts and minds," Vera Rocha told Tim Cantwell earlier this month when she and a half-dozen other activists staged a surprise visit to the magnificent 220-acre chunk of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills that Cantwell wants to develop.
Cantwell, 36, looked somewhat puzzled as Rocha spoke. She told him how three weeks earlier John Hafner, an Occidental College biology professor who lives on property next to Cantwell's, had discovered an ancient Indian grinding stone while digging an irrigation line.
That's interesting, Cantwell told her. But he said a survey by an expert he hired last year concluded that there was nothing archeologically significant about the land where the two were standing. In the past three years Cantwell and his partners have spent $10 million in acquiring and planning a residential community for the property.
"It might not be significant to you. But it is to us," said Rocha, 60, who lives in Baldwin Park and had come that day at the request of Altadena residents worried about the proposed development.
As Rocha continued, she invoked her ancestors, Mother Earth and the sanctity of the land, which for most of this century was home to a tuberculosis sanatorium known as La Vina and named for the vineyards once there.
These close encounters of an uncomfortable kind have been occurring for more than two years as developers and neighbors try to reconcile their differences.
On Sept. 14 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a hearing on whether to grant zone changes that would allow residential housing. The proposal calls for 270 single-family homes nestled around indigenous live oaks and the deep canyons of the surrounding Angeles National Forest.
Last October, by a 4-1 vote, the county's regional Planning Commission approved the zoning changes required for the developers' plan, which now represents a scaled-down version of what was once a 360-unit project. But the planners rejected the idea of permitting a LaCanada Flintridge private school to relocate there.
It is unclear what effect the discovery of the grinding stone, known as a "metate," may have on next month's proceedings, according to Darene Southerland, a county regional planning assistant handling the case. The Board of Supervisors, she said, will consider whatever evidence may be presented about the discovery.
Regardless, the grinding stone further complicates a project, which has involved Altadena planners, local town council members, the Urban League of Pasadena, Pasadena City College, the county's parks and recreation department, the county's flood control experts and thousands of Altadena's 43,000 residents, who have been wooed to support one point of view or the other.
And matters could become even more complicated. Earlier this month opponents of the project, Friends of La Vina, received a boost when a New York City-based law firm, Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn, decided to take up the cause pro bono.
"We want to make sure the county Board of Supervisors proceeds with caution and care so as not to destroy the natural resources and natural beauty in Los Angeles County," said Deborah Bucksbaum of the firm's Century City office.
Developer Cantwell, president of Cantwell/Anderson Inc., which in 1987 was joined by Orange County's Southwest Diversified Inc. in the project, said his goal is to balance environmental concerns with the desire to develop a prime location.
Cantwell uses phrases like "positive synergistic spillover" when talking about the project. He has proposed donating $200,000 in improvements to nearby Loma Alta Park and upgrading equestrian trails in the area.
"This is an extremely high-quality site, and it has the propensity to be a wonderful environment for people to live," Cantwell said.
Beyond that, the $100 million project will be "a tremendous shot in the arm to West Altadena" which he said had suffered economically for decades. The California Craftsman-style homes will sell for between $300,000 and $450,000 each.
And Cantwell, in cooperation with area minority leaders, has worked out a jobs training and employment program to assist local minorities.
Half for Forest
Cantwell said he will protect the rugged terrain of the half-dozen canyons, barely a 10-minute drive from downtown Pasadena. Half of the 220 acres, he said, will be dedicated to the national forest.
The critics, he said, would like to see the entire property left alone. But Cantwell said, "That's not going to happen. This is going to be developed. Period. The only question is how. We believe residential development is the answer for everybody."
Nonetheless, Cantwell said his company wanted to be sensitive toward Native Americans. "The discovery (of the grinding stone) certainly drives us to be more cautious."
The other day, when Cantwell received the unexpected visitors, he let the group roam among the graded, dusty land to see if they could find other evidence of a Native American settlement.
In the search party were Chester King, a Topanga Canyon archeologist, who once grabbed onto the blade of an earthmover to protect an Indian site in Topanga; Vera Rocha and her husband Manuel Rocha, both deeply involved in attempts to stop large-scale developments where they believe artifacts might be unearthed and desecrated; a handful of neighborhood residents, including Hafner and his wife, Patti, who together discovered the portable grinding stone.
"It's not that we're against development per se," said 37-year-old Patti Hafner, a Pasadena schoolteacher. "It's just the density is too high. There will be too many homes. There's not much of the San Gabriels left and it would be nice to keep what's left."
As they traversed the rocky earth, they searched for clues. Here and there they found the feather of a raven, one of a red-tailed hawk and the tuft of an owl.
At one point, King bent down to find what appeared to be a scraping tool that, he said, might be 2,000 years old. "If I saw five more rocks like that, I'd say there might have been a settlement here."
Cantwell assured him he would hire an archeologist to be present during the construction phase to preserve any significant findings.
That seemed to give Vera Rocha little solace.
As a gentle wind stirred through the canyons where she said her ancestors once roamed, she could see for miles around, even with the tinge of smog masking the view.
"It's very beautiful here," she said.
"Yes," Cantwell said, in a moment when opposing points of view converged. "It is gorgeous."