Scout Camp, Neighbors Draw a Line in the Road

Times Staff Writer

Ask the dozen families on Old Creek Road near Ojai about their biggest problem and they'll say: the Girl Scouts.

Ask the people at the nearby Girl Scout camp about their biggest problem and they'll say: the people on Old Creek Road.

You'd think the two sides could get together on this problem. Let's stand around the campfire and pass the talking stick, someone could suggest. We can work this out. We're all good people and we all want a reasonable solution. And, by the way, would anyone care for a box of Thin Mints?

But the time for genteel give-and-take has passed.

The neighbors and the Girl Scouts have their lawyers, their stacks of accusatory documents, their charges and countercharges, and their court date.

And that, these days, is the way the cookies crumble.

Old Creek Road stretches a half-mile from California 33 to the Old Creek Ranch Winery, where it dead-ends. It's a beautiful little road, meandering by a creek and through the willows. It's so tranquil you'd wonder how anyone could ever leave it.

Yet the fear of being trapped--either unable to get off Old Creek Road or unable to get onto it--is exactly why residents are less than keen about our girls in green.

"The Girl Scouts are supposed to be all-American people out to do good deeds, but all of a sudden they want to cut us off from our homes and businesses," said Mark Maitland, co-owner of the Old Creek Ranch winery. "It's weird. It's beyond my comprehension, and it's not very neighborly."

For a week or two most winters, rain-swollen San Antonio Creek rages over Old Creek Road. It uproots oak trees and sweeps along huge boulders, and there's no crossing it. The only way residents can get out is to unlock a gate facing Old Creek Road, drive a quarter-mile across the Girl Scout camp, unlock another gate, and head down Sulphur Mountain Road to Highway 33.

Since 1975, the Girl Scouts have allowed this emergency tactic, charging an annual fee for the keys and reminding residents to motor through the camp no faster than 5 mph. When the property was a ranch, the same kind of friendly arrangement was in place, residents say, starting decades before Juliette Gordon Low established the Girl Scouts in 1912.

But now the Girl Scouts have enjoyed about as much neighborliness as they can stand. They say that especially during the months of El Nino two years ago, Old Creek residents abused their privileges, placing campers at risk. The locks have been changed and the neighbors have been officially deemed unwelcome.

"I felt if we didn't put a stop to residents driving through, we'd be compromising the safety of our girls," said Cynder Sinclair, executive director of the Tres Condados Girl Scout Council. "That has to be a higher value for us than being neighborly."

The Girl Scouts claim the residents leave the gates open, allowing anyone in the area to speed down a narrow camp road sometimes fringed with the tents of sleeping Scouts. Empty beer cans keep showing up on the grounds, according to the Scouts. A biker roared in at 2 a.m., and someone in a truck carved doughnuts on the lawn. A caretaker pursued a kid speeding through, and he turned out to be an exchange student staying with an Old Creek family. Sinclair called the family "belligerently uncooperative."

For their part, residents say Scout employees have often left the gates open themselves--a claim the Scouts deny. And they scoff at suggestions that the neighbors are involved in wild behavior at the camp. Looking around his expansive living room, Chris Moore, a sergeant with the Santa Barbara police, asked, "Do they really think that we sit around here saying, 'Let's go over to the Girl Scout camp and drink some beer?' Come on . . . "

So what are the residents to do during the week or two most years that San Antonio Creek rages?

"I'd make sure I was planning ahead," said Sinclair, the Scouts' director since 1995. She pointed out that firefighters and sheriff's deputies have keys to the camp's gates if they have to cross it to an emergency on Old Creek Road.

But residents worry that they couldn't get out for medical aid.

"A tenant on my ranch is pregnant," said Maitland, who grows hay and raises cattle in addition to running his winery. "It could be real scary."

And what about the families who need a plumber ASAP to fix a burst pipe, or a construction crew to replace a smashed roof?

The Scouts would consider access for such reasons "on a case-by-case basis," Sinclair said.

A mediation session earlier this month flopped. Residents offered to pay for radio activated gates that outsiders couldn't get through. They offered to increase the Scouts' liability insurance and to start a scholarship fund.

But none of that satisfied the Scouts. "Picture a playground with kids all over the place and a road running through it," said Sinclair.

The Scouts offered the neighbors limited pedestrian access, but the neighbors viewed that as an empty, half-hearted and inadequate gesture.

The Scouts' minds were already made up before the mediation, the neighbors say.

The neighbors' minds were already made up before the mediation, the Scouts say.

Anyone care for a Thin Mint?


Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is

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