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No Hooters or high schools allowed

Posted: June 6, 2009 5:17 p.m.
Updated: June 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Will the William S. Hart Union High School District ever manage to build a high school campus in Castaic without getting caught in the middle of other people's petty land wars?

Maybe not.

Take Newhall Land's giant holdings out of the equation, and much of the remaining undeveloped land in this valley is in the hands of men (to our knowledge, they're all men) who don't like each other all that much.

"Buy low, sell high" is the American way, but these guys take it to the extreme and don't seem to care whom they hurt in the process.

It's nothing new, really. Our local history is full of colorful land disputes that date back to the arrival of our earliest white settlers.

Nothing has changed in the past century and a half. We've won world wars and gone to the moon and elected a black president, but our local land barons are stuck in the Dark Ages.

The only difference today - the only difference - is that instead of using six-guns, they use lawyers.

Sometimes one of them will find a sucker to buy his property for way too much money, then take it back when the buyer defaults - and continue to make promises he can't keep while he waits for the next sucker to come along.

Sometimes one of them will have an offer on his property, only to be stabbed in the back and sold down the river when his next-door neighbor cuts a back-room deal with the buyer.

Sometimes one of them will die and the rest will sail in like sharks and fight each other in court until one of them bleeds dry.

We aren't speaking in the abstract. These aren't fictional scenarios.

So now it's about the Sterling Gateway property - nestled in the hills between the Valencia Commerce Center and the community of Val Verde - the Hart district's latest preferred site for a Castaic high school.

That's because the school district has already danced the dance on those other properties, only to slip and fall and smash its head on the floor.

What choice has the district other than to hope the tune will be different this time? The people of Castaic need a high school, and the people of the Santa Clarita Valley have agreed to pay for it.

Sadly, in the course of doing its due diligence on the property, the district discovered it's being led onto the floor with the same old song playing.

Stop the music for a minute. We need to mention our school district officials' handling of the situation.

They've done their due diligence in a timely and apparently thorough fashion. When they detected the problem, they didn't try to hide it or cover it up.

They came to us right away and told us about it, so we could pass along the information to you.

That's the kind of openness and transparency our residents and voters deserve to see.

As to the specific problem, here's the tune:

The Sterling Gateway property has been family-owned for decades. The family couldn't do much with it because it's in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by undeveloped land without sufficient access or utility lines.

Along comes next-door-neighbor Newhall Land with its Valencia Commerce Center, complete with a road and utilities stopping at the Sterling Gateway property line.

If Sterling Gateway can tie in, it can develop the property to its full potential.

Lo and behold, in September 2005, Sterling Gateway developer Hunt Williams signed an agreement with Newhall Land, giving him rights to certain adjoining property.

In exchange, Williams agreed to abide by the same sort of post-Blue Moon restrictions that govern the Valencia Commerce Center.

If you've been around a dozen or so years, you remember the Blue Moon. It was a nice family restaurant at Castaic Junction until the owner sold it to an outfit that installed poles and hired dancing girls to entwine their bodies around them.

Newhall Land got mad and bulldozed the place.

Evidently it didn't fit with the vision the boys and girls from the Stanford Business School had for Valencia.

It was too late for the Valencia Industrial Center, which started in the late 1960s, but turn forward the clock just past the Blue Moon incident and the first companies were taking root in the Commerce Center, where they were bound by all sorts of deed restrictions.

Among the prohibited uses for property in the Commerce Center:

Bowling alleys. Pool halls. Hooters (by name). Adult bookstores. Head shops. Tattoo or massage parlors.

Also prohibited:

Churches. Gas stations. Funeral homes. And plenty of other unsavory things - including schools.

Williams signed a piece of paper saying he "desires to subject the property to the use restrictions set forth" - meaning no school (and no Hooters).

The same piece of paper gives Newhall Land the ability to nullify the restrictions.

As any good lawyer would tell you - and as they've told us - the document itself doesn't necessarily answer the obvious questions, to wit:

What property? Just the easement Sterling Gateway acquired from Newhall Land, or the whole project area?

Is the agreement still in effect, or was it superseded? If still in effect, can Newhall Land unilaterally void it, or has Newhall Land forfeited that right to other Commerce Center property owners?

These should be fairly simple questions to answer, but each remains in dispute and might not get settled outside of a courtroom.

So what about a Castaic high school?

The Hart district is apparently forced to dance yet another dance. But this time, it seems to have its feet planted firmly on the floor as it waits for the next shoe to drop.

This isn't fair to the people of the Santa Clarita Valley - especially the parents and students of Castaic.

It's the 21st century - high time for our local land barons to grow up and play nice.


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