Council votes to pursue ownership of Hart Park

Patrons pet Half Pint the donkey at the William S. Hart Park Barnyard's grand reopening on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Courtesy

The Santa Clarita City Council voted 4-0 on Tuesday to ask Los Angeles County to consider transferring ownership of William S. Hart Park to city control. 

Prior to the 4-0 vote — with Councilwoman Marsha McLean absent — the meeting was checkered with speakers in support of the possibility of city ownership of the 160-acre park, while a number of speakers expressed opposition to the plan, believing the county should continue to maintain and operate the land in the same way that it has since 1946.   

“I just don’t see the city being able to take over and financially be responsible for Hart Park,” said Evan Decker, who has volunteered at the park for approximately a decade.   

A number of speakers said the city should honor the will of William S. Hart, as he expressly gave the ownership of the park over to the county and its successors. Hart, a famed star of silent western films, bequeathed the park land — including his hilltop mansion — to the county upon his death. 

“I find it pretty displeasing that there’s some backdoor deals with taking ownership of William S. Hart Park,” said Decker. “I think, as it is specified here, William S. Hart’s last will and testament that it does go to the county, again, and I think we need to honor that wish.”  

In response to the opposition, City Manager Ken Striplin said that in terms of the question of “successor” in the contract, the city would be considered the successor as the city had not been incorporated in 1987 — more than 40 years after Hart’s death.  

Striplin also took on the question of what benefit the city incurs should it take over ownership of the park, saying that the city could look at creating a “more broad benefit to the community.”  

“I would say that the city has a history of demonstrating benefits every time we take over something from the county,” said Striplin. “You can look no further than the park system we have in place: the level of maintenance that we have provided, the types of buildings and amenities and facilities that occupy those buildings, the types of maintenance standards that we adhere to, I would say are not nearly the same as the county.” 

As other examples of the city’s success in taking over programs, Striplin said the city’s taking over of the local libraries reduced the cost of operations as well as kept them open throughout the pandemic. He added that the city taking over local streetlights saved taxpayers millions of dollars by converting them to LEDs.  

“Both of these projects were an absolute success that the council initiated and put forward and have demonstrated to the community the value and the cost savings time and time again,” said Striplin.  

City Councilman Cameron Smyth seemed to support these sentiments, saying that there had been proven successes in the past with the city taking over county parks and that there would be public discussions, should the county and city come to an agreement on the terms surrounding the deeding. 

Mayor Bill Miranda said he had learned of the agenda item through reading The Signal, and said that demonstrates how much more communication the city needs to have with local residents in order to ensure everyone understands how acquiring the park would be a “win-win.”    

“I found out about this through The Signal and I sit on the City Council and I’m wondering why I have to read about it in The Signal,” said Miranda. “So, we might want to want to work a little bit on getting the information out to everybody before we have to read it in The Signal.” 

Councilman Jason Gibbs said that a number of his questions were answered by the comments made by Smyth and that the city taking over the park might contribute to protecting Hart’s legacy.  

A longtime member of the SCV Historical Society, Councilwoman Laurene Weste said that county staff had been rolled back as a result of COVID-19 and that it’s a good time “to make the question happen.” 

In response to the city announcing that it would be sending a letter to the county asking to begin negotiations on deciding if the city should take over control, staff from Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office deferred to their previous comments.  

“The city of Santa Clarita has made a substantial investment in the revitalization of the Old Town Newhall arts and entertainment district and has collaborated with the county on events at Hart Park for the past several years,” Barger said in a statement sent to The Signal on Friday. “While I have not had an opportunity to review or discuss their proposal, I am open to the possibilities that will continue to allow for the enjoyment of this historic park for all those who come to visit.”   

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