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Santa Clarita CA
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Today in
S.C.V. History
July 19
1924 - Sherman Block, L.A. County's 29th Sheriff (1982-1998), born in Chicago [story]

Commentary by Leon Worden
| Sunday, Dec 10, 2017

Patricia Navarro was a UC Berkeley student in 1998 when she put the finishing touches on a plan to restore the Pioneer Oil Refinery in Newhall and turn it into a historic park.

I wonder where Navarro is now. I wonder if she knows it still hasn’t happened.

Located off of Pine Street in Newhall, the Pioneer was operated by a predecessor to Standard Oil of California from 1877-1888. It was the first productive oil refinery in the American West and is believed to be the oldest existing refinery in the world.

Chevron USA, the 1977 merger company of Standard and Chevron, donated the refinery and its 4.6-acre parcel to the city of Santa Clarita in 1997-98. The Santa Clarita City Council voted to accept the donation in August 1997; escrow closed in April 1998.

The Pioneer Oil Refinery had been a park in the past, albeit a privately owned one, when Standard Oil restored the refinery to its former glory in 1930 — and again in the 1950s — and again in 1976 for the nation’s bicentennial and what Standard considered its own centennial: the 100th anniversary of its predecessor’s success in Pico Canyon. From Pico (Mentryville), the oil was piped six miles to the little refinery in Newhall, making both equal partners in the birth of the California oil industry.

But now, in 1998, the refinery sat derelict, its two original stills (of four) having been whisked away to Chevron’s headquarters in the Bay Area and its brick chimneys victimized by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Corporate pride and a directive to shed nonproductive property compelled key people at Chevron USA to remove the refinery from the company’s books while simultaneously setting a plan in motion for its preservation.

In addition to donating the refinery to the city, Chevron committed to preparing a plan (Navarro’s plan) for its restoration and pledged $15,000 to kick-start the effort. The resulting plan earmarked Chevron’s $15,000 for signage and anticipated a total cost of $274,300 to restore the structures and create a park setting around them.

An unanticipated, quarter-million-dollar historic restoration project was not in the 10-year-old city of Santa Clarita’s budget. But change was afoot. A funding opportunity presented itself when the adjacent property owners — Mark Gates, Hank Arklin and Eternal Valley Cemetery — started planning an industrial park that would surround the refinery on three sides.

In November 2000, the City Council ordered an environmental impact report for the 584-acre Gate-King Industrial Park. Of the 584 acres, 337.5 acres were zoned industrial-commercial, 29.2 acres were zoned community commercial (retail), 124.1 acres were zoned residential and 93.2 acres were zoned open space.

Gate-King instead proposed to develop 344 acres as industrial-commercial, build zero homes, and give the rest of the land — 240 acres of riparian woodlands, or 41 percent of the total project area — to the city of Santa Clarita as permanent open space. (See chart on page 2-11 of EIR.)

It also promised to create connections to the Pioneer Oil Refinery and Hart Park, as well as hiking trails overlooking the San Fernando railroad tunnel with interpretive signage along the way. The EIR anticipated “less than significant impacts” to the refinery because the development project would “avoid the use of heavy equipment” near the refinery and/or stabilize the refinery’s acid tank; provide a drainage system to avoid the deposition of materials on the city’s refinery property; and provide “improved access and parking for the historic Pioneer Oil Refinery.”

In addition, the developers would pay $2.4 million to the city for public improvements, to be spent at the city’s discretion — in part to restore the refinery, according to public statements by city officials. After all, the developers would want it fixed up. They wouldn’t want a pile of broken bricks in the middle of their modern business park — and they said so.

Then came the lawsuits. The city certified the Gate-King EIR in June 2003; by July the developers were in court. The Santa Clarita Oak Conservancy, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, the California Oak Foundation and others alleged that the EIR did not adequately address water supplies for the project.

The development was sidelined for more than a decade by the litigation and the subsequent economic recession, during which time the city completed most of the other off-site public improvements it had expected to make with the developer’s $2.4 million.

The Pioneer Oil Refinery park project was idle but not forgotten. Every year until his untimely death in 2015, Parks Commissioner and SCV Historical Society board member Duane Harte kept the refinery restoration on the commission’s “priority” list, even as it languished on the city’s “unfunded projects” list (at an anticipated cost today of $500,000).

In 2004 the city announced it would be applying for a state parks grant to restore the refinery. State records show no such grant was awarded — which makes sense if a restoration plan hadn’t been finalized and the city’s matching funds (the Gate-King dollars) were tied up in court. The city also applied for a Getty Foundation grant that did not come through.

In July 2011, the City Council approved a new master plan for the refinery site that would preserve the existing structures and add trees and parking spaces. In June 2013 the council approved a minor land swap that had the net effect of adding 0.75 acres to the refinery site.

Now, more than 14 years after the City Council gave the go-ahead, the Gate-King Industrial Park is happening. Grading on the first of three phases started last month.

Today’s little walk through history has no happy or snappy ending. The final chapter has yet to be written. I hope Patricia Navarro will still be around to read it.


Leon Worden is president and CEO of SCVTV. His opinion is his own.

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  1. jim says:

    Nicely put Leon. As Judge Gideon J. Tucker (or Mark Twain, take your pick) said; “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session”.

    Given enough different legislatures, I suppose that no one will ever know just how hosed they have become.

    I sincerely hope that a reasonable local dickering over the various issues will end up with something that won’t make us all feel like we’ve been hosed.

    At least more than is usual.

  2. Brown says:

    Thank you.

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