Commission turns down Wintersburg site owner's plans

The Wintersburg site's six historic buildings have been spared from demolition — at least for now.

A divided Huntington Beach Planning Commission on Tuesday turned down a request by Rainbow Environmental Services to clear the 4.4-acre property, which it owns, referring the issue to the City Council for a final decision.

Wintersberg was once the site of a Japanese American Presbyterian Church founded in the 1880s and related settlements. The property is perhaps best known for the "Jesus Saves" mural facing Warner Avenue, and preservationists are fighting save it.

Though the property doesn't have formal state or federal historic status, the city's general plan recommends preservation of historic-era structures.

In response to the commission's recommendation, the waste company said Wednesday that it is going to appeal the decision to the City Council.

Despite halting demolition plans, commissioners approved Rainbow's environmental impact report (EIR) and agreed to change the property's zoning from residential to about 1 acre of commercial and 3 acres of industrial.

At issue was the Planning Commission staff's "statement of considerations," which would have allowed Rainbow to move forward, even though some environmental affects could not be mitigated, said Planning Commission Chairman Mark Bixby.

Bixby joined Vice Chairman Erik Peterson and commissioners Dan Kalmick and Robert Franklin in dissenting. Edward Pinchiff, Michael Posey and Bob Dingwall voted in favor.

"I get what [Rainbow] is trying to do … but we represent the citizens of Huntington Beach and not necessarily the entity that owns the property," Kalmick said. "It's a social decision, I think, in some cases of what we want our city to look like. It's not up to just the individual entities."

The statement says the city does not have the means — the money or relocation site — to preserve the historically significant buildings. I

t also concludes that development at the site would be viable and that crime associated with the property could be lessened if the buildings were torn down. Rainbow has not yet said what it would like to do with the property following any demolition.

Mary Urashima, chairwoman of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, considered the planners' decision a place holder.

"I would like to consider it a victory, in terms of the action taken to prevent demolition," Urashima said. "I remain concerned about the certification of a flawed EIR, and I remain concerned about the understanding of the very significant historical value of this site."

Elizabeth Watson, an attorney speaking on behalf of the waste management company, said the employee owners of Rainbow aren't getting back their investment in the property.

"Why is this information critical? It's because the Warner-Nichols property represents a substantial portion of the pension assets of the employee shareholders," Watson said.

Rainbow bought the property from the Furuta family for $4.6 million in 2004. Plans to develop the site have since stalled because of the economic downturn.

Urashima and more than 10 others pleaded their case to the Planning Commission regarding the historical significance of Wintersburg. A representative for Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) said her boss supports preserving Wintersburg.

"With all do respect, this situation affects much more than the employees of Rainbow," said Gloria Alvarez, chairwoman of the city's Historic Resources Board. "It's much more than the story of the Furuta family and their contribution to our city."

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