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Coastal Commission fines Huntington Beach property owner $430,000

State coastal regulators Wednesday criticized and fined a property owner for unearthing artifacts at a 9,000-year-old Native American village site near the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach.

In a settlement with the California Coastal Commission, the Goodell Family Trust agreed to pay a $430,000 penalty, rebury artifacts and restore areas disturbed when archaeologists dug a series of pits on the family-owned land on the Bolsa Chica Mesa in 2010.

The work was conducted without the state’s authorization and without a Native American monitor present, a requirement under state law.

State officials said the excavation damaged prehistoric shells, animal bones, scorched rocks and other cultural artifacts that might help determine the boundaries of the 9,000-year-old village and burial site on the mesa, above one of the state’s most treasured coastal wetlands.

The panel approved the settlement on a 10-1 vote Wednesday after an emotional hearing in Santa Monica in which staff members for the agency hastily negotiated with the property owners for a penalty more than triple the $130,000 they had initially proposed.

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Ed Mountford, a representative for the Goodell Family Trust who also works for Bolsa Chica home builder Hearthside Homes, told the panel “they deeply regret that this mistake occurred” and said they had misinterpreted the agency’s guidelines.

Several coastal commissioners said they didn’t buy his explanation and pushed for the heftier penalty.

“This is not a mistake,” said commission Chairwoman Mary Shallenberger. “I think [the penalty] is inordinately low, and in my opinion it is disrespectfully low.... We cannot have destroying these archaeological resources be the cost of doing business.”

The money will be used to offset damage to the Native American site by funding an archaeological conservation project in coastal Orange County. The settlement also requires the property owner to restore the site, document and rebury the artifacts, screen the excavated soil for additional prehistoric items and arrange for Native American monitors to oversee the work.

The 6-acre parcel is next to the Brightwater housing development, where Hearthside Homes won Coastal Commission approval to build a 350-home development in 2005 after a 30-year battle over home building near the salt marsh.

During home construction in 2008, archaeologists working for the developer disclosed they had removed 174 sets of human remains from the site, supporting claims that it was a significant prehistoric Native American settlement.

Though the 6-acre Goodell property is vacant, state officials said the owners have indicated they intend to develop a portion of the property into single-family homes. The Goodell Family Trust had permission from the coastal agency to conduct only surface-level studies that would not disturb the soil.

Instead, archaeologists dug 16, 3-foot-deep pits throughout the property in areas already believed to contain intact archaeological materials.

Native American groups with ties to the site said the penalty was not severe enough and vowed to oppose development there.

“When it comes to the destruction and desecration of someone’s culture, I don’t think that you can put a price tag on it,” said Anthony Morales, chairman and tribal chief of the Gabrielino-Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, one of two Native American groups that claim ancestry at the site.

“It’s just outrageous,” he added.

The prehistoric village has been dubbed the “Cogged Stone Site” for the number of gear-shaped artifacts found there that are believed to be ceremonial objects.

After the criticism from public speakers and coastal commissioners, the Goodell Family Trust representative abruptly withdrew its application to conduct further archaeological work on the property. The delay will give the commission time to examine a key archaeological study of the neighboring Brightwater project that developer Hearthside Homes is expected to release in the next few months.

tony.barboza@latimes.com


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