The Santa Clarita City Council moved forward Tuesday with plans to acquire William S. Hart Park, unanimously approving 10 steps for city staff that would ultimately result in L.A. County relinquishing control of the last park it created in current city limits.
The 160-acre property includes the park, Hart Mansion, the previous senior center site adjacent to the park, a small zoo with alpacas and bison, and about 150 acres of open space, as well as several historically significant sites that are being worked on by local volunteers.
While City Councilman Bill Miranda called the proposal a “no-brainer” because of the potential to put an important part of the area’s history under city control, Councilwoman Marsha McLean, who ultimately voted in favor, wanted to see more discussion of the steps and the cost.
Miranda likened the move to previous precedents set by the council, including its renovation of The Main theater, which he called a “huge success,” and the renovations of the Newhall auditorium and The Cube.
“We did it for the community,” Miranda said. “The Cube is one of our most used facilities today and we bought it to serve the community. William S. Hart Park, you have to look at it not just for what it is today, but for what it will become in the future.”
Both Miranda and Councilman Cameron Smyth cited the city’s track record of “incredible success” with respect to how it has been able to transform facilities.
McLean believes in the city’s ability to transform the park, she said. But she felt there wasn’t enough detail behind the city’s presentation to make a completely informed decision, and when she asked about revenues she said she was concerned about the long-term cost to taxpayers. She didn’t want to approve the purchase and then have to go back to the voters for a bond to pay for it, since all the details aren’t yet available.
“The park is fabulous. It’s wonderful and there’s no doubt about that. It is a gem within our city. But I kind of want to give a dose of reality here,” said McLean, who sought to remind her colleagues the city got its reputation for fiscal conservatism by not spending more than its revenue allows. “The county wants us to take it over because they don’t want to spend the money on it.”
Those opposed to the move during public comment echoed McLean’s concerns.
Evan Decker, an 11-year Hart Park volunteer who said he’s spent half his life giving tours of the grounds and caring for the animals, felt the city didn’t understand the magnitude of the undertaking.
“I just kind of find this whole report ludicrous in my opinion,” he said, arguing the county has been adequately maintaining the park since its official opening almost 65 years ago.
He said things have been going along smoothly, and the park is expected to have its famous Pow Wow, a popular annual gathering of regional Native American groups, return this year after a three-year hiatus.
“Unfortunately, though, I feel like the city doesn’t really have a clear and concise plan, and it really doesn’t understand what it takes to care for a collection as massive as the Hart collection,” Decker said.
“We’ve only seen city staff there three times,” he said, adding he’s there almost every single day.
A city staff report by Jerrid McKenna, director of neighborhood services for Santa Clarita, said the city expects to spend approximately $5.7 million for the first two years, which includes more than $600,000 in capital improvement costs.
His report also said the curation of artifacts would represent a significant expansion of the city’s preservation efforts, and a challenge identified was the movement of the artifacts in the event of an emergency.
McKenna estimated in an email Monday that the baseline annual cost of maintenance for the park in year two — after an initial city investment for equipment costs the first year — would be approximately $1.1 million.
In response to a question by McLean, City Manager Ken Striplin said the city is not expecting the acquisition of the park to become revenue-neutral; however, the city also identified several potential revenue streams the city could realize with the acquisition that the county has failed to realize thus far, including the prospects for a renovated Heritage Junction, which includes three museum facilities being worked on by local volunteers, increased filming opportunities and the availability for future events.
While the park was famously willed to be free to the public by William S. Hart, city staff noted a 24-acre parcel of the plot isn’t covered by the will, and it would be possible for the city to monetize it to offset its costs.
As it stands now, without these added revenues, the city expects the park to generate approximately $380,000 the second year to help offset renovation and staffing costs.
Councilwoman Laurene Weste, who’s been a longtime supporter of the park and the celebration of its history, said she didn’t like to discuss the monetary value of historical artifacts, but called their worth “incalculable.”
Smyth shared his own memories of the park, noting he took his engagement photos there, and added there was no question from the speakers or the council members over the amount of respect the city has for the park.
L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the 5th District which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, and whose support for the transfer is key, issued a statement Monday saying she backed the city’s effort.
“Local leaders have clearly indicated they are committed to preserving its historic legacy and will continue to make the museum, trails and grounds accessible to the public,” she wrote via email. “Transferring Hart Park could also benefit surrounding communities by freeing up funding and Department of Parks and Recreation staff formerly dedicated to the park’s operation and maintenance.”
Smyth brought up an added concern for those who wish to enjoy the park going forward, saying that if the county hasn’t invested the money to date to renovate the facilities, there’s no guarantee that will happen any time in the future.
“No one can question the ability of our staff and what we have done with those facilities and the benefits that have come from the city,” Smyth said, also mentioning past park renovations.
The first step listed by city staff was to complete the title report and appraisal, and the last steps being the hiring of staff and purchasing of equipment necessary for operations, and then a certificate and trust fund transfer.