Future of historical site still in question

The fate of the historic Wintersburg site remains unclear after a vote by the Huntington Beach Planning Commission to do further studies into a request to change the property's zoning.

Wintersburg was the site of a Japanese American community that began in the late 1800s. It grew to become a cultural center that included homes, a mission and farmland. Now the area sits uninhabited but maintains a cultural significance as the site of the 1912 Furuta home, the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, 1910 Manse, and the 1934 Church.

In 2004, Rainbow Environmental Services bought the property, at Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane, for $4.6 million from the Furuta family. Now the waste management business is asking Huntington Beach to change the zoning from residential to mixed commercial and industrial use.

Speakers said the buildings are an important element in the history of Japanese Americans and must be preserved.

In a 6-0 vote, with Commissioner Bob Dingwall absent, board members Tuesday gave staff until the May 28 meeting to update a report on the 4.4-acre Wintersburg site.

"I'm sensing a certain amount of antsiness in the desire to move forward on the project that's been in the pipeline for seven plus years," Chairman Mark Bixby said. "I'm concerned that we're not analyzing the whole action here."

The proposed change would convert a little more than 1 acre of the land on the north side into commercial space while the remaining 3 acres would be available for industrial use.

Commissioners asked staff members to look into what it would take to add the barn to the list of buildings eligible for historical registration. They also asked staff to consider the pros and cons of converting the site to a historical district and any public safety issues associated with the area.

"I'm not sure I'm comfortable changing the EIR (environmental impact report) on the fly on the dais," Commissioner Edward Pinchiff said. "I might be more comfortable continuing the EIR and getting some input from staff."

City staff was pelted with questions, including a laundry list from Commissioner Dan Kalmick. He said that he found inaccuracies and contradictions within the report and questioned why Rainbow would change the zoning from a residential to a commercial and industrial site.

"Since Rainbow is the property owner and one of the goals of this project is to not have something built on that and be a residential buffer, I'm confused [with] the rezone without some project involved in this," he said.

City Planner Ricky Ramos said Rainbow didn't submit a project because of the economic climate.

Planning Director Scott Hess said the city has in the past looked into changing the zoning of a property before the applicants turned in a project proposal. He said work and money go into developing detailed floor plans and site plans and it makes more sense to find out first if the land use is even approved.

Ron Shenkman, former chairman of Rainbow who bought the property from the Furuta family in 2004, said the company waited to go forward with any projects because of the economic downturn.

"We waited because we needed to wait," Shenkman said. "We weren't in a position to take any risks at that particular time."

The retired chairman said he's had a good working relationship with Mary Urashima, chairwoman of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, and has cooperated with the staff, but wants to see things moving ahead.

"We want to see things work out, but we also have a responsibility to our employee investors, to improve the area and to try to make some kind of a return on an investment sitting dormant for eight years going on a decade," Shenkman said.

An alternative that some commissioners liked was to restore the buildings for future commercial use, but to relocate them elsewhere on the property, but Ramos said that would not be feasible because of the cost involved — estimated to be around $2.4 million, according to a staff report.

Urashima said four of the buildings on the site are eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but speed bumps lay in that path.

"Huntington Beach does not have a citywide preservation ordinance. We have not locally adopted the Mills Act — which would give tax credits to people who restore historic properties — and we don't' have an adaptive reuse ordinance in place," she said.

Bixby motioned earlier in the night to add the barn as part of the historical resources on the property. But his motion failed, with other commissioners wanting more information to be presented first.

People came from as far as Torrance to speak to the Planning Commission about the issue.

Kanji Sahara, a 79-year-old member of the Japanese American Citizens League, said the future of the Wintersburg site is a civil rights issue because the buildings "represent the heritage of the Japanese American community in Orange County."

Sahara compared Wintersburg to Manzanar, the relocation camp in California where thousands of Japanese Americans were sent during World War II. He said Manzanar was registered as a national historic site because it told the history of what had happened there and it would have lost historical value had it been moved.

"Manzanar tells the story of what happened 70 years ago. These buildings at Wintersburg tell the story of what happened 100 years ago," he said.

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