By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
HUNTINGTON BEACH — Those seeking to preserve the Historic Wintersburg buildings were dealt a setback Monday night when the Huntington Beach City Council voted 4-3 to certify the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and approve the Statement of Overriding Consideration (SOC) for the Warner-Nichols site.
The SOC allows the owner of the four-acre property, Rainbow Environmental Services, a waste management company, to demolish the buildings.
At the same time, the preservationists got one concession from the council and the company — instead of a year, as originally proposed, they will have 18 months to find a new home for the six buildings and raise funds for relocation. Some councilmembers suggested two years, and a year and a half was agreed upon as a compromise.
The Warner-Nichols site contains buildings predating the 1913 Alien Land Law, which prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land. They include the Furuta family home and barn and Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church. Although the buildings are now unoccupied and have fallen into disrepair, advocates say they are valuable resources representing both Japanese American and Orange County history.
In a process required under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), the city’s Planning Commission had previously approved the EIR but voted against the SOC. Rainbow has argued that keeping the buildings will prevent it from developing the property, although a specific project has not yet been proposed.
Rainbow Executive Director Jerry Moffatt and attorney Elizabeth Watson also said that the empty buildings are a blight and a magnet for crime. Mary Urashima, chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, countered that six police calls have been logged at the site from 2005 to 2011, and none since.
The rejection of the SOC was appealed by Mayor Pro Tem Matt Harper, while the approval of the EIR and rezoning of the site for commercial/industrial use were appealed by the Ocean View School District, which says that students of Oak View Elementary School — already suffering from pollution from an existing Rainbow facility — will be negatively impacted.
According to city staff, a 2002 proposal to develop residential units on the site was withdrawn because of concerns about the property being across the street from the Rainbow facility. In 2004, Rainbow purchased the property to prevent it from being developed for residential purposes.
In addition to Harper, voting in support of rezoning and demolition were Councilmembers Dave Sullivan, Joe Carchio and Jim Katapodis. They emphasized that Rainbow has been a good corporate citizen and has always been honest in its dealings with the city government. Opposing demolition were Mayor Connie Boardman and Councilmembers Joe Shaw and Jill Hardy.
The vote was taken after hearing from about 50 speakers representing Rainbow, the school district and the Japanese American community. Several Rainbow employees stated that their livelihoods will be impacted if the site cannot generate income, while students, parents, teachers and administrators said that they are already being impacted by air pollution and seagulls from the solid-waste facility and do not want further industrial development. One of the signs held up by audience members read, “Stop bad odor garbage smell coming from your facility.”
Community speakers included Tadashi Kowta, son of Rev. Sohei Kowta of Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church; Craig Tomiyoshi, JACL’s national vice president of public affairs; Ken Inouye, JACL Pacific Southwest District governor; Kanji Sahara, JACL Pacific Southwest District civil rights chair; Evelyn Shimazu Yee of Azusa Pacific University; Nancy Oda of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center; retiree James Hosoda; Dennis Masuda, a member of the church and nephew of Nisei war hero Kazuo Masuda; Kerry Cababa and Colleen Miyano of the Manzanar Committee; and former Assemblymember Warren Furutani.
While Rainbow has stressed that the history of Wintersburg is well documented regardless of what happens to the building, community speakers said there is no substitute for having a physical site that brings history to life. “You don’t get a feel of it” through photographs alone, Furutani stated.
Yee added that she found the term “relocation” unsettling because it reminded her of the uprooting of the community during World War II.
Planning Commission President Mark Bixby was critical of Rainbow, saying that its lack of a development plan made it difficult to discuss options for the future of the buildings, such as adaptive reuse.
A short video was shown about a profile of the Furuta family that will be broadcast on the PBS series “Our American Family” next year.
The task force has expressed a desire to rehabilitate the buildings on-site, but Rainbow has rejected this idea as infeasible due to the expense and lack of profitability. Urashima said the task force will seek to “raise funds to relocate the historic structures or, possibly, purchase the area of land that includes the historic structures.”
There is a 30-day period after the Notice of Determination for the EIR is filed by the city, during which another party may file suit.
“Our next step will be to prepare the nomination for the National Register of Historic Places,” said Urashima, “to follow through on the recommendation of the U.S. National Park Service and National Trust for Historic Preservation that the property is potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criteria A, ‘Japanese American Settlement of the American West.’
“And, a major fundraising effort begins. We’ve only begun and call upon our (blog) readers for support.”
Donations dedicated to the preservation of Historic Wintersburg, with Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force and City of Huntington Beach oversight and reporting, can be made via mail or online at www.huntingtonbeachca.gov/i_want_to/give/donation-wintersburg.cfm.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo