The Ridge Development “DENIED” by Coastal Commission; most of HB rejoices! [update – not “denied” but stymied.]

The mammoth, packed, Coastal Commission hearing at Huntington Beach City Hall, on whether to change the zoning of the “Ridge” portion of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands from “open space” to “residential,” is only half over, but it’s pretty clear which way the wind is blowing, so I already have my title. 

Coastal Commission staff find the developer’s arguments unconvincing, and also recommend rejecting his last-minute offer to trade some other Bolsa Chica land (the “Godell” properties) for permission to build some McMansions on this culturally and biologically sensitive area.  And four out of seven current HB councilmembers (Shaw, Boardman, Hardy, Katapodis) wrote letters to the Commission asking them to “Deny the Ridge.”

Today’s “Deny the Ridge” crowd (on a Thursday morning remember)

A far cry from the last time this came to council, almost four years ago.  THAT 2010 hearing was a dramatic contrast – a contrast between the nearly 100 public speakers, EVERY SINGLE ONE EXCEPT THE DEVELOPER HIMSELF opposing the project … and the seven-member HB council only ONE of whom – the brave Jill Hardy – voted no.  And it’s been hard work, since then, building up a City Council that represents the people of this town rather than OUT-OF-TOWN DEVELOPERS.  Let’s not lose that this November!

I recently joined (at Joe Shaw’s urging) an online forum, “Huntington Beach Community Forum,” which has sort of adjusted itself, as these things do, to be mostly a gathering-place for critics of the current environmentally-conscious Council Majority.  They rail against (MOST of the posters there rail against) the plastic bag ban, and the attempted styrofoam ban, as undemocratic unjustified nanny-state tyrannies.  They ridicule the idea of human-caused climate change and rising sea leavels, and they use “Al Gore” and “Barack Obama” as punch lines expected to get a knowing, caustic laugh.

YET, it’s nice to see that, just like with last year’s Fire Pits controversy, protecting the Bolsa Chica mesa and wetlands unifies almost everyone in this town – that “Forum” has been bustling with opposition to the Ridge development.  Too bad the politicians – the council members these forum people back – aren’t quite on the same page.  Mayor Matt Harper spoke in favor of the development, contending that most HB people don’t really care about the issue and stupidly think that actual wetlands are up on the 50-foot ridge itself.  (NOT.)  Joe Carchio, who easily has his head turned, has most recently had his head turned by the developer, finds his swap offer a good one, and contends that the town needs no more “park land.”   The remaining Republican Dave Sullivan, although a staunch Poseidon critic, doesn’t seem to care much one way or the other about Bolsa Chica.

By the time I finish this typing, these Commissioners will probably announce their decision;  up until now there have been two especially great moments – one was the presentation of the Native American tribes whose ancestors and artifacts are buried in the area – complete with chanting and drums.  And the other was a GREAT, passionate speech by Santa Barbara archaeology professor Brian Fagan, a speech he agreed to hand over to me when he was done.  (“One less thing for me to carry around,” he growled.)  I wish I had a video copy to put here, and if one comes out I’ll add it, for now, enjoy his appearance on The Daily Show… after which I’ll type out his speech:

I am an Emeritus Professor at UC Santa Barbara.  For the past fifty-six years, I’ve been a professional archaeologist, carrying out multidisciplinary research on archaeological sites all over the world, and reconstructing history for indigenous peoples, including Native Americans.  I have both a local and international perspective on Southern California’s archaeological sites.

The Ridge/Goodall properties include part of an extensive complex of ancient settlements, burial areas, and sacred sites that are now largely built over. 

The preservation of ORA-83 offers the last chance to preserve what remains of a unique, vital part of California’s Native American past in a focal area for human settlement for thousands of years.  The damage wrought to the finite archives of this past at Bolsa Chica by development and urban expansion has already been devastating.

People have lived, worshipped, and buried their dead in this area for at least 9000 years.

By 7000 years ago, people were buried here in carefully laid-out arcs, at a time when irrigation agriculture first began along Egypt’s Nile River. 

These sites are famous for their mysterious, unique cogged stones (below) which were part of intensified ceremonial activity.  Undisturbed deposits on the sites my one day yield vital information on ancient Native American rituals and beliefs.  ORA-83 is unique because of its long sequence of use – 7000 years from 9000 to 2000 BC!

By from 6000 to from 5000 years ago, Bolsa Chica and its environs were a magnet for hunting, fishing, and plant foraging as well as an important ritual center at the time when the first cities rose in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians built the Pyramids.  Over 1000 spiritual objects have come from these sites.

By about 3500 years ago, the ancestors of the modern-day Native American groups in the area arrived from inland.  They still regard the mesa as an intensely sacred place.

What is preserved here is a unique record of brilliant, low-key adaptations to a challenging, ever-changing coastal world over more than 9000 years.  This record is just as much part of the common cultural heritage of humankind as the Pantheon, or the first Chinese emperor’s terracotta regiment – and, to California, just as important.

I haven’t mentioned any of the enviornmental/biological reasons to be against this development, OR any of the dirty tricks the wannabe-developer has played over the years. Those would both merit their own articles.

You cannot argue that these sites are unimportant or that one can preserve these sites by digging up their surviving contents and preserving them in a museum.   What is at issue here is CONTEXT, the associations of the artifacts with one another in the soil, which are all-important in telling us what happened here.  And we can be sure that such contexts still exist on these properties.

In a world where sustainability and respect for the environment are on everyone’s minds, the educational potential from a well-preserved record of the past of this kind is enormous, even if it seems unspectacular.  Given the major advances in archaeological methods in recent years using high technology science, the amount that will be gleaned from sites like this, however disturbed, is potentially enormous.

Most important of all, the properties have profound spiritual importance to the present-day Native Americans of the area.  It is in these sites that many of their revered ancestors are buried.  Respect and reverence for ancestors is a fundamental part of Native American culture.  The spiritual significance of this location must be respected and treasured for future generations. 

The equivalent would be to build houses on the site of a Christian cathedral (or as one speaker today suggested, building over Huntington Beach’s Good Shepherd Cemetery.)  We owe every religious belief profound respect, even if it is different from our own.  We owe the ancestors of their modern descendants greater respect than that.

Ultimately, this is quite simply an ETHICAL DECISION that you face.  It’s also a decision that looks FAR AHEAD, long into the future.  Do we preserve the past for the benefit of generations unborn?  That is a responsibility that we all have.

UPDATE:  In a shock development nearly identical to the Poseidon hearing late last year, the developer withdrew his application when he saw it was going to be denied.   This will make it necessary for him to come back to the CITY with a new proposal.  The current council is a no-go.  It’s a good bet that this and other developers (as well as Poseidon) will put all their efforts into defeating their foes Joe Shaw and Connie Boardman in the upcoming election, because there’s no point coming back with the current council makeup.  Bear that in mind when you vote this November, all of you who want to save Bolsa Chica and The Ridge!  – Vern

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.