SANTA CLARITA – With the legal impasse that has blocked development of the Whittaker-Bermite property near resolution, local leaders are looking forward to the filling 996 acres of prime real estate in the Santa Clarita’s center with homes, roads and business, and perhaps bridge the city’s east and west halves. An Arizona bankruptcy court is overseeing the last phases of settlement from Remedial Financial Inc., the Phoenix-based owner of the contaminated property off Soledad Canyon Road that went belly-up in 2004, before it could fulfill promises of clean-up and development. A legal resolution means the property could be up for bid in early 2006, a toxic piece of real estate that could prove a gold mine for builders with the right mix of pollution remediation and urban planning know-how. Irvine-based SunCal Cos. and North Carolina-based Cherokee Investment Partners are among the suitors. Officials at both companies could not be reached for comment, but for the city of Santa Clarita – eager to bring private investment into this troubled property – a settlement couldn’t come soon enough. “Any development team coming in will want a very expedited process,” Hardy said. “We certainly want to see the remediation of the soil and the ground water to be expedited. That needs to happen prior to any productive re-use of the property. That’s been the biggest driver of this site.” The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has been monitoring the decontamination effort – led by Whittaker since RFI’s bankruptcy – for several years. Meantime, the Castaic Lake Water Agency is leading groundwater clean-up. Filters were installed last month at shallow alluvial well, with Whittaker contributing $500,000 to the effort. But complete restoration of local groundwater supply could cost more than $15.3 million. The property was a money sink for RFI, which bought the property in 1999 for $15 million. Officials said they spent more than $25 million to clean before putting it back on the market in 2002. The company had said they were stymied by a City Council that refused to amend the old Porta Bella plan to suit their needs. It filed for bankruptcy in 2004. Former City Councilwoman Jo Anne Darcy, who served from incorporation in 1987 until 2002, recalled differently. “I was skeptical from the beginning, only because I didn’t know about the company,” she said in a recent interview. “It always makes the flares go up if it’s too good to be true. I’m not disparaging developers either. “Our main concerns then are still the same. We don’t want to have heavy development. We don’t want it to impact the traffic directly, and we want to make sure the water is clean and safe.” To be successful, Darcy said developers who dare to take on the site must consider what the city needs now in housing, industrial space and roads. “When they make a cross-valley road, you’re going to cut your property in half,” she said. “You don’t want to do it too badly. You’re going to have all that traffic noise. It’s got to be sized in comparison to the surrounding area and the number of people who are going to be there. “If they do it right, considering that this is a family community, I’m sure it’s going to be a big success. You don’t want to overdo it.” Barbara Wampole, vice chairwoman of the environmental group Friends of the Santa Clara River, said city leaders should emphasize open space. She cited the failure last month of the proposed $25-a-year park and open space assessment, which 60 percent of local property owners voted down. “If they are going to have family housing, they better have greenbelts for people to recreate,” she said. The measure was intended to collect about $1.46 million a year to buy, maintain and develop parkland and open space. The city has a stated goal of providing 5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents – or a total 800 acres – though currently boasts only 220 acres of recreation parks. “They just lost their open space measure,” Wampole said. “The city is now more challenged to find ways to design open space in its future. It’s important to remember that the city is still far behind what it ought to be in open space dedication for parks. We would like to see open space available in the middle of the community.” Wampole envisions a central park on the property that’s more New York City than Saugus. “I think about a square mile in Manhattan,” she said. “I don’t think about playing fields. I think about a park with wooded areas that really function to bring people close to natural habitats.” The city’s population is expected to grow from the current 167,000 to more than 187,000 by 2010, according to Southern California Association of Governments projections. “Everybody talks about anticipating increased growth,” Wampole said. “If the community has to grow in some direction, they’re going to have to build more intensely in the middle of the city. “If that happens here and we find ourselves without community parks, it will be obvious someone in the city is not thinking about the future.” — Eugene Tong, (661) 257-5253 [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake “I think our city has been very clear that the remediation and the development of this property is a high priority,” said Lisa Hardy, the city’s planning manager. “There is a major roadway infrastructure that extends through the property, and it’s the geographic center of our city.” An existing development plan the city approved in 1995 – Porta Bella – was a non-starter under RFI and previous owner Whittaker Corp., though the entitlements are still in effect, Hardy said. But any attempts to revive the decade-old project would face city scrutiny. “We’ve made it very clear that we want a very collaborative land-use planning process to occur, that would involve the community and the city as well,” she said. “The intent is to explore an alternative land-use plan for the property with the developer, that’s better reflective with the city’s needs today.” Porta Bella featured a business park, a major east-west road and nearly 3,000 homes slated for the former rocket testing and explosives manufacturing site, which operated for more than 50 years until Whittaker closed it in 1987. But potential builders – as part of the city’s existing development agreement – must deal with a legacy of contamination by heavy metals and solvents such as perchlorate before construction takes place. The chemical, which has been linked to thyroid problems, has seeped into area groundwater and forced the capping of at least six drinking wells.