Ojai Botanical Garden Gets the Ax

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citing a seven-year history of permit violations, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday closed a popular botanical gardens and nature study center near Ojai.

Supervisors said operators of the International Center for Earth Concerns continually flouted its operating permit soon after opening the 265-acre botanical garden for public tours in 1994. The retreat was supposed to be used by no more than 50 people a day, but has in recent years become a magnet for weddings, fund-raising events and school field trips.

On a 4-1 vote, supervisors rejected the operators’ plea for a second chance to make requested changes.

“I cannot give you what you have asked for today and that is trust,” Supervisor Judy Mikels said.

Supervisor Steve Bennett cast the dissenting vote, saying the board should give the center another chance to clean up its act, because its programs benefit the public.

The property was donated to the Conservation Endowment Fund by retired developer John Taft in the 1980s. Taft also sits on the private nonprofit’s board and was responsible for the management of the center until recently.

Taft and two neighbors near his Baldwin Road property have quarreled over the center’s use for years. Problems intensified in 1995 when the center began holding large gatherings.

Taft also built a large pavilion and other buildings without the proper permits and, according to county officials, ignored their repeated requests to fix the violations.

One of the neighbors, James Pendleton, asked the county last year to revoke the center’s permit, prompting volleys of paperwork. In June, the county Planning Commission revoked the permit.

Tuesday’s four-hour hearing before the Board of Supervisors was an appeal of that decision. Seventeen speakers urged the board to give the center a chance to turn itself around, noting that the site is a popular destination for schoolchildren and local residents seeking a tranquil respite.

Taft told supervisors he has stepped down and turned the center’s management over to a new team that is committed to complying with all county rules. But the majority of supervisors was not swayed.

Supporters of the center said they intend to start the permitting process over--if they have enough money for what can be a costly and time-consuming process. But Taft appeared bitter.

“If the committee wants to do something, that’s up to them,” he said.

“But John Taft is not going to fight an unappreciative government anymore.”