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Joe Messina: Hart District choosing rough road to a high school in Castaic

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Posted: June 20, 2009 4:04 p.m.
Updated: June 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.
When you keep hitting "bumps" in the road, eventually you'll get to a point where you have to ask, "Is it the road's fault or the driver's?"

We have arrived at that point with the William S. Hart Union High School District in its fruitless, nearly decade-long search for a site upon which to build a high school in Castaic.

Time after time, a potential school site has been identified, only to be abandoned as a result of one problem or another - whether it's community outcry against a particular site or a developer's economic glitches.

Now the Hart district has hit yet another in a long series of "bumps," making it evident our leaders are not doing a sufficient job of anticipating just where the bumps are.

This time, the district has tabbed a parcel known as the Sterling Gateway property, adjacent to the Valencia Commerce Center, as its preferred site for the proposed Castaic high school.

There are several factors that make Sterling Gateway a nice place for a high school. It's undeveloped. It has an apparently willing seller. It's in close proximity to the population it would serve.

One minor problem: You can't build a high school there. In fact, you can't build any kind of school there.

A bump in the road, indeed.

You see, historically the Sterling Gateway property has lacked access to roads or utilities, which made it exceedingly difficult for the property's owners to develop it.

When Newhall Land and Farming started developing the Valencia Commerce Center next door, it created an opportunity for Sterling Gateway to acquire access to those important tools.

So the Sterling Gateway developer struck an agreement with Newhall Land to acquire adjacent land and the rights to connect to the roads and utilities.

As part of that 2005 agreement, the developer also agreed to abide by the standard deed restrictions Newhall Land uses for commercial/industrial developments like the Commerce Center.

In other words, the property only has access to roads and utilities so long as it abides by those agreed-upon conditions.

The deed restrictions are a responsible developer's way of protecting the tenants and property owners within the commercial/industrial development.

Among other things, the restrictions prevent certain kinds of land use from being brought into the center - such as strip clubs, head shops and tattoo parlors.

The restrictions also prevent other kinds of land use that may surprise the casual observer: No churches. No mortuaries. And no schools.

It's not that those who created the deed restrictions believe schools are a "bad" thing. Quite the contrary.

As a Newhall Land executive correctly pointed out, two of the Hart district's high schools are in Newhall Land's Valencia developments.

Rather, it's a question of which types of land use best mesh together.

A smart and responsible developer will recognize - in advance, which some at the Hart district may find to be a novel concept - that commercial and industrial businesses may not consider a high school to be an ideal neighbor.

Hence the deed restrictions were imposed.

If a school is to be built on the Sterling Gateway property, either the land would have to be seized through eminent domain (which seems highly unlikely) or the deed restrictions would need to be lifted.

Exactly how can the restrictions be lifted?

It appears Newhall Land could, if it chose, grant an exception, but that of course would not go over well with some of the businesses in the Commerce Center.

The parties involved are exercising some debate over the technicalities (lawyers are, of course, involved), but more to the point: Should the restrictions be lifted anyway?

Simply removing the restrictions won't suddenly make a high school and the Valencia Commerce Center's business and industrial occupants ideal neighbors.

As one should have expected, once it became publicly known that the Sterling Gateway property was put at the top of the list of potential Castaic high school sites, its potential neighbors in the Commerce Center raised concerns ranging from traffic to vandalism to student safety - and just general incompatibility.

And, while a high school may not generate an aggregate amount of traffic that's beyond the norm for an area like the Commerce Center, remember that a high school's traffic comes in furious spurts in the morning and afternoon.

The school's morning traffic would occur right around the time the work force is trying to finish the morning commute - and, while staggering school starting hours has been listed as one option, it's certainly not ideal.

None of this means anyone thinks a high school is a "bad" thing.

To the contrary, I think we can all agree our schools are among our community's most treasured assets.

We just have to find the right places to put them, on sites where they "fit" with what's around them, and we need our leaders to exercise more astute anticipation in selecting a site.

The Sterling Gateway site has emerged as the latest Castaic high school controversy, and our leaders should have seen it coming.
Either they did not see it at all, or they saw it coming and proceeded anyway. Either scenario is disturbing.

Think back to your driver education class in high school. One of the most important lessons learned was the importance of watching the road ahead, staying constantly aware of potential hazards and taking appropriate measures to avoid them.

Does Castaic need a high school? Desperately. And we desperately need our leaders, the ones we elect, to make sure taxpayer money like the $300 million from last fall's Measure SA is spent as it was intended to be, for the construction of school facilities - not for land speculation and commercial or residential development.

Yes, the Sterling Gateway deed restriction and the debate over the site's suitability as a high school site is, as one school board member described it, a "bump" in the road.

But this is a rather large bump, and the Hart district's road trip in search of a Castaic high school site has dragged on for far too long.

It's time for the driver to pay closer attention to the road, identify the obstacles ahead, and find a less bumpy route.

Joe Messina is a local businessman and a candidate for the William S. Hart Union High School District board in the November election. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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