Archaeological firm elicits concern

Costa Mesa's archaeological consultant hired to survey the Fairview Indian Site is being met with some concern because of its controversial excavations in neighboring Huntington Beach, though officials contend the job there is far different from what's being done up the hill.

Scientific Resource Surveys Inc.'s (SRS) work on the Bolsa Chica Mesa was part of a controversial housing development in the area, where hundreds of human remains were found years ago. They were later reburied.


At the time, activists who opposed the new housing alleged that the finds were not disclosed to the public. Recently, developers who had hired SRS were fined $600,000 for the firm's unpermitted digging in the early 2000s, according to California Coastal Commission documents.

Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman said she was dismayed by Costa Mesa's choice.


"I have serious qualms about this firm," she told the Daily Pilot. "I think it's really unfortunate that the city has hired a firm that, for whatever reason, doesn't follow the law."

A representative from SRS, however, said the company's work in Fairview Park, unlike at the Bolsa Chica wetlands, involves no digging, just a surface-level assessment of the archaeological significance.

"That was a completely separate project from what this is," said project manager Destiny Colocho. "I understand everybody is upset, but I just don't think that it's SRS that is really is to blame."

Furthermore, the Orange-based firm "did everything to standard" at Bolsa Chica, and along the guidelines of the state Office of Historic Preservation and the California Environmental Quality Act, Colocho said.


Joyce Perry is the tribal manager and cultural resource director for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation. Perry, who will be working at the Fairview site, monitored SRS's work at Bolsa Chica. She said the firm isn't unique when it comes to a controversial past. In her 25 years of experience, she said most area archaeological firms have opened themselves to criticism.

"I know people want to make [SRS] unique, and there's this witch hunt in effect," Perry said. "Once you make a mistake in your personal or professional life, that's the focus, but I can tell you that SRS has done some incredible preservation work."

SRS, which began its Fairview Park work Oct. 7, was hired by the city specifically to assess the concerns raised by the state Office of Historic Preservation, Costa Mesa officials said.

Those included a belief that Fairview Indian Site — a National Register of Historic Places listing officially known as CA-ORA-58 — actually extends farther south than originally thought, to where a public vehicle turnaround space is planned.

The turnaround, set to be constructed at the end of Pacific Avenue within the park's southwestern quadrant, was originally planned as a parking lot and was later downgraded to a turnaround space capable of handling large emergency vehicles, such as fire trucks.

Both the original lot and turnaround have been met with near-universal opposition partially on the grounds that the project would contribute to additional traffic along Pacific Avenue. Lately, concerns that construction could harm the Fairview Indian Site have also come into play.

State Historic Preservation Officer Carol Roland-Nawi urged in her Sept. 24 letter to city CEO Tom Hatch that the site should be avoided, in order to prevent potential "damage or destruction caused to resources through development of sites, such as construction of buildings or roads." Roland-Nawi also expressed worry about vandalism.

SRS was among four companies that vied for the Fairview Park job, said Costa Mesa Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz.


The committee's choice of SRS, Munoz said, was not unlike the process the city undergoes for other contracts, which includes vetting for qualifications, experience and who might be assigned to the job.

SRS has contracted with Henry Koerper, who worked on past Fairview Indian Site survey work, to help in the effort. Other registered archaeologists with Ph.D.s are involved as well.

Koerper's participation "kind of weighed heavily with our decision as well, given that we wanted someone to hit the ground running," Munoz said.

He added, "It's not like we're going to have somebody starting over. That's a big plus."

SRS was also chosen very quickly, about a week after the city received the state's letter.

"We had to expedite this," Munoz said. "And even though we had to expedite this, we made sure we followed all the requirements for expert consultants. We didn't want to be challenged on any of that."


Scope of work

The SRS contract is for $16,690, with the total amount not to exceed $50,000, city officials said.

The work may take as long as eight weeks, and a public presentation about it is planned for the Nov. 6 Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee meeting.

SRS has also contacted various Native American groups with ancestral ties to the area, a few of whom had expressed their frustrations with SRS during the Oct. 2 citizens advisory meeting.

SRS did an initial perusal by foot of the area earlier this month, Colocho said. She called the job standard and simple.

"They are calling for a report of the area, which means gathering all the records, any reports written, any archaeological sites that are within the one-mile radius of the area," she said, adding that the team will try to determine the boundaries of the Fairview Indian Site, whether they should be extended and if they match what was recorded in the 1990s.

The report may not be made public given the archaeological sensitivity of the area to prevent possible looting of artifacts. Costa Mesa recently denied a Pilot public records request for a 1993 archaeological report about the Fairview Indian Site on those grounds.

City attorneys cited state law exempting disclosure records related to Native American graves, cemeteries and sacred places.

Perry, of the Acjachemen Nation, called the pursuit of archaeology a "double-edged sword."

"It's destructive, but you get some knowledge from it," she said. "We wouldn't know about the 9,000-year-old occupation at Bolsa Chica if there wasn't excavation. But it is against the belief system to unearth our ancestors. Once we put them in the ground, that's where they should stay."