Historic, cultural sites could create obstacles to Rancho San Juan project.
Thursday, May 13, 1999
At the foot of San Juan Grade near the intersection of Crazy Horse Canyon and San Juan Grade roads stands California Historical Landmark No. 651, a plaque commemorating the so-called Battle of Natividad.
It was at this locale on Nov. 16, 1846, just a few miles northeast of Salinas, that Commandante Manuel De Jesus Castro and his band of Californians engaged the U.S. military occupation forces under Commodore Robert F. Stockton. Although the outcome of the skirmish was inconclusive, historians agree that the battle was a significant event in the struggle over California''s statehood.
More than 150 years later, another battle is brewing on the very same parcel of land. On one side stands a group of developers and property owners proposing to build almost 3,000 residential units and a massive industrial/commercial development on the 2,100- acre site now known as Rancho San Juan.
On the other side stands a ragtag group of cultural preservationists and historians who are seeking assurances that the battle site, as well as the Hebert Ranch, a group of ranch buildings that purportedly were the inspiration and setting for author John Steinbeck''s The Red Pony, will be preserved.
"If, in point of fact, cultural tourism is valuable to the community, and statistics say it is, it makes good sense not to destroy an asset," argues Kent Seavey, a historic preservation consultant and instructor in the history of art and architecture at Monterey Peninsula College. "You incorporate it into the larger scheme of things, because once it''s gone it cannot be reclaimed."
Unfortunately for both sides of the debate, the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared for the project by a Southern California consulting firm fails to make any mention of the historic sites or the potential impacts to those sites from the proposed project.
Additionally, there is some dispute over the precise location of the Natividad battlefield site, as well as questions over the exact influence of the ranch on Steinbeck''s writings. Given the paucity of information in the EIR, particularly regarding which parcels will be preserved as open space, resolution of the issues will likely take many more months.
How such important historical sites were overlooked in the EIR, including possible Native American settlements and remnants of the town of Natividad--an old stagecoach stop and settlement built in the 1860s that pre-dates the town of Salinas--is a question Seavey continues to wrestle with.
"My sense is this was a 13-year-old project that''s been sitting and waiting for something to happen," says Seavey, "and because ''you couldn''t see anything,'' no one bothered to look at the property on site.
"It''s curious to me it didn''t occur, because for 19 years the Steinbeck people have been making tours to the ranch," adds Seavey. "In this case, we have a property that is historic in a number of ways, and from the perspective of the state, the Hebert farmstead is potentially eligible for listing on the historical register for history or culture/literary aspect."
It is the cultural aspect of the Hebert Ranch and its relation to Steinbeck''s life and literary works that makes the preservation issue so critical to Steinbeck authority Carol Robles. The Hebert Ranch site in particular raises interesting questions over the value and meaning of cultural history. Although Robles says she doesn''t want to see the Rancho San Juan project derailed on the basis of her concerns, she insists that however intangible, the Salinas Valley''s cultural history is worthy of preservation.
"We''re not trying to endanger the entire development, just asking that the EIR be amended to include the historical and cultural aspects," says Robles. "The [Hebert Ranch] is one of the few examples we have in existence of how working ranch buildings really were 100 years ago. The tack room and bunkhouse are intact and are excellent examples of what used to exist in our valley. What makes it cultural is it''s one of the sites Steinbeck wrote about."
Because of the inadequacy of the EIR, it remains unclear whether the Hebert Ranch is situated on land slated for open space.
"The ranch itself is scheduled for development and there is a mandate for open space, but when you look at the map, the lines show ranch property buildings destined to become residential," says Robles.
According to Robles, project spokesperson Candy Ingram indicated that the developer wouldn''t demolish the ranch buildings, but that aerial mapping she reviewed with Ingram shows the barn would be demolished.
"My understanding is that the building and house concerned about are within open-space designated area," responds Ingram, speaking for developer Mo Nobari and his HYH Corporation.
Based on her research, Ingram says the location of the Natividad battle site as well as the role of the Hebert Ranch remain open to question.
"I talked to several people that lived in the Valley a long time and they said [the Hebert Ranch] is not the same site we''re talking about currently," says Ingram. "On the Battle of Natividad, I looked at historic resource books and they don''t describe the particular area itself.
"In general the question is, ''Is there some kind of documentation of exactly where the battle was?''" adds Ingram. "It''s a question of going through the information and having the documentation."
According to Dick Ramella, principal planner for the Planning Center, the Costa Mesa consulting firm hired to prepare the EIR for the county, the county is submitting public comments on the EIR and that the historical issues will be submitted as a supplemental report on the Rancho San Juan EIR.
"The process is underway now and the county is forwarding to us comments received on the EIR," says Ramella. "The county asked us to prioritize those comments in order of significance and importance to determine how we''ll address them."
Precisely how the Planning Center overlooked the historic issues in the initial EIR is a question Ramella couldn''t answer.
As far as Seavey and Robles are concerned, the debate over historical sites need not be confrontational, and in fact, much room exists now that the issues have been identified to resolve these questions in a way that benefits everyone.
"We all want to resolve this issue so those considerable historic qualities contained in the area are somehow maintained and not lost," insists Seavey. "These are values we should be looking at to incorporate to enhance our heritage and perhaps enhance the value of the property." cw