City vote allows demolition at Wintersburg site

Supporters of the Wintersburg site in Huntington Beach will have 18 months to figure out how to preserve its historical structures.

The deadline comes with the City Council's decision Monday to approve on a 4-3 vote the much-debated environmental impact report allowing demolition at Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane.

With the vote, Rainbow Environmental Services, which owns the site, has the green light to start demolition, but the local company must wait 18 months to let preservationists save the six buildings on site that were part of the first Japanese Presbyterian Church in Orange County.

The waste management company initially proposed a one-year window, but council members and Rainbow's executive director, Jerry Moffatt, agreed to extend the period an additional six months.

The council's vote also started the process of rezoning the property to a mixed use, a designation needed for Rainbow to move forward with any development.

Mayor Connie Boardman, Councilwoman Jill Hardy and Councilman Joe Shaw dissented.

The Ocean View School District appealed the environmental impact report, which was heavily discussed during a Planning Commission meeting in August.

The school district and others, including commission Chairman Mark Bixby, believe the report was flawed because of Rainbow's piecemeal approach to the project.

"It's rather disingenuous for staff and the applicant and the applicant's employees to assert that there is no subsequent project," Bixby said during public comments. He was one of about 50 to speak up on the issue.

He added that if Rainbow had provided an overall view of the project rather than snippets, identifying the costs to restore the historic buildings would be easier and could possibly ensure their survival through various methods, such as relocation or adaptive reuse — which maintains the aesthetics of the structure but uses them for a new purpose.

Bixby said the waste management company is deliberately inching forward to pave a path for itself, theoretically making it easier for the company to plan a project in the future. And with City Council approving the rezoning, it eliminates the option of keeping the structures on site.

Mary Urashima, chairwoman of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, said the significance of the Furuta buildings — two family houses, a barn, two churches and a manse — would be greater if they remained on location.

Moffatt, Rainbow spokeswoman Sue Gordon and the company's attorney Elizabeth Watson said many times that no project has been identified and potential developments are to be determined.

Rainbow is now awaiting a second council reading on its rezoning application

to change the land use from residential to mixed use with 1.1 acres zoned for commercial and 3.3 acres zoned for industrial.

Bixby also had issues with rezoning the 4.4 acre site.

"The EIR and a number of speakers tonight used the strange paradoxical logic that building residential closer to the existing industrial is bad, but doing more industrial close to the existing residential is somehow not harmful," he said. "How does that work?"

Though the report states that there wouldn't be enough mitigation efforts to minimize the environmental impact, a statement of overriding considerations allowed the demolition on the basis that it would reduce crime in the area.

Opponents of the statement, including Boardman, say there haven't been many incidents reported in the area, which was supported by data from the police department.

According to a presentation given by Urashima, a total of seven police calls have been made regarding the Wintersburg site, with the last incident reported in 2011.

Preservationists and representatives from the Japanese American community from across Southern California heavily backed safeguarding the Wintersburg structures. A variety of people, from a former resident of the Wintersburg community to former Assemblyman Warren Furutani, asked council members to protect the site.

Furutani compared Wintersburg to an elderly person: They both are not as strong or capable of generating revenue as they used to be, but they have knowledge and history to share with a younger generation.

Rainbow didn't just face opposition from the city's past, but from the current community around Wintersburg as well.

Speakers from the Oak View neighborhood had their own opinion on the project and the company itself.

Residents described the foul smell they and their children are subjected to and also complained about the dust from a crushed cement pile that settles in neighboring schools and homes. They also expressed their disapproval for any new industrial development in the area.

"The conditions my students and staff live with daily are nothing less than terrible," said Laura Dale-Pash, principal of Oak View Elementary.

The elementary school and a pre-school sit across the street from the Rainbow facility on Nichols Lane.

Moffatt said Rainbow is in talks with the city to sign a covenant stating that "no portion of the property shall be utilized for the receipt or processing of municipal solid waste, and that the city shall not accept any application for any such use of the property."

Public testimony went on for a few hours, and council members were finally able to get a word in on the issue around 10:20 p.m.

In one way or another, the council members stated their trust in Rainbow, with many saying that the company has yet to cross them.

"In my view, Rainbow is the best corporate citizen in this community. I wouldn't venture to say who No. 2 is, but they're way behind Rainbow," Councilman Dave Sullivan said, who also believes the company will stay true to the covenant.

Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper said the city is going to need a waste management facility and it would need to grow with the city.

As an advocate for property rights, Harper added that owners have every right to do as they please on their property and if others don't like it, they should acquire the property for themselves.

"What is the way to make sure to decide what happens on a property? Buy the property," he said.

Councilman Joe Carchio was concerned the Ocean View School District may sue the city again for a project in its district area.

The district last sued the city regarding the environmental impact report of the Beach and Warner mixed-use project, which the City Council decertified in May, thus killing the plan.

"I have a sneaky suspicion we're going to be sued by the school district no matter what," Carchio said about the six-month extension.

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