Surrounded by towering mountains and rows of sweet-smelling orange trees, the Ojai Valley has long been a hideaway for reclusive movie stars and spa-seeking tourists, an enclave for New Age hippies and families looking for good schools and safe streets.
But trouble is stirring in Shangri-La.
Bulldozers recently began moving dirt for a new housing project that environmentalists fear will destroy the rural charm of the picturesque community.
The project: 23 luxury condominiums squeezed into three acres downtown.
By sprawling Southern California standards, the development isn’t much of one. But in tiny Ojai, where growth creeps at a sluggish 0.3% annually and Earth-loving residents protest the removal of even a single oak tree, it is enough to spark a war over the city’s future.
“I think this is about the biggest [housing project] we have ever seen,” said Stan Greene of Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, which has sued to stop the development.
“Basically, we think it is too massive and too intense,” Greene said. “The way it was expressed by one of our members to the Planning Commission is that it is a very nice project, but not here. Meaning, not in Ojai.”
The environmental group has placed an initiative on the November ballot that would give voters authority to reject any future developments that would increase traffic.
City leaders contend the initiative is an attempt to halt growth in what is already the smallest and slowest-growing city in one of the most growth-restricted counties in the nation.
They have sued to remove the measure from the ballot. A hearing is set for Friday in Ventura County Superior Court.
“They don’t want any growth,” said City Councilman Joe DeVito, a retired school administrator and Ojai resident for 37 years. “It is kind of like, ‘I’ve arrived and I want to close the door.’”
Arguably, the door has been closing for some time.
Only three new housing projects, totaling 68 units, have been approved by the city since 1993 and the stock of available housing remains tight--and expensive.
Census data show the city of Ojai, population 7,862, grew by only 3% between 1990 and 2000, while nearby communities with cheaper real estate grew by 13% to 16%.
Two months ago, the median price of a home jumped to $372,000, compared with $285,000 at the same time last year, according to DataQuick Information Systems. The spike placed Ojai among the top three cities in the state with the greatest increase in median home prices, according to the California Assn. of Realtors.
Skyrocketing housing costs and stagnant growth are now being blamed for a sharp decline in school enrollment as working families are priced out of the area.
Ojai Unified School District, a small district serving about 3,900 students, expects to lose 190 student next year--nearly double last year’s enrollment dip of 100 students.
Balancing the housing shortage with Ojai’s geographical limitations and self-imposed mantra to stay small is no easy task, and it has forced developers and city planners to look inward for growth opportunities.
Los Arboles Townhomes seemed to fit the niche.
The mission-style condominiums would cover two vacant lots on South Montgomery Street near Libbey Park, turning a blighted area into a property tax-generating housing complex within the city’s downtown redevelopment district.
The project, which went through several revisions before it was approved earlier this year, would replace 29 rundown cottages and single-family homes with stylish two-story townhouses. Two artists’ lofts would sit above street-level storefronts, and residents would live within walking distance of downtown shops and restaurants.
Proponents say the mixed-use project concentrates growth in the downtown core, encourages pedestrian traffic and is consistent with anti-sprawl mandates.
“It does hit all the buzzwords of modern planning,” said developer Lance Smigel, an Ojai Valley resident. “It is truly an in-fill project with fewer units than were originally there.”
But opponents contend Los Arboles would cram too many people into too small a space and worsen traffic on already congested roads winding into and out of the Ojai Valley.
They point to the city’s own studies that show the project poses “significant” adverse effects to traffic by adding 137 daily car trips on those highways.
“You can’t just keep using the road resources and the natural resources and expect that you are not going to destroy the life quality of people who live here,” said Greene, a resident for 23 years.
“I don’t doubt that this can be an economic benefit,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that you destroy the vision of your community just because of it.”
City leaders, however, felt the benefits, economic and otherwise, outweighed the project’s potential negative effects. They approved Los Arboles in January 2001.
Citizens to Preserve the Ojai and the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County sued a month later.
In court papers, the groups say the city failed to conduct an adequate environmental impact report, failed to consider project alternatives and violated planning guidelines.
The city denied the claims, but ultimately ordered up a supplemental environmental study and the lawsuit was settled in October.
Three months later, the council considered the new environmental report and approved the project for a second time. In February, opponents filed a second lawsuit, alleging that the supplemental analysis was flawed.
Their attorney, Richard Francis, wrote in court papers that the revised analysis was based on an initial environmental report that was “decertified, null, void and ineffective for any purpose. In other words, it’s supplemental to nothing.”
Although the lawsuit--which seeks an injunction to halt the project--is pending, Smigel is confident the environmental review will hold up in court and he is moving forward. Grading is underway. And he hopes to obtain building permits this summer.
Frustrated by the city’s stance on Los Arboles, environmentalists placed on the ballot an initiative that would give voters, instead of elected officials, the right to reject traffic-generating projects.
“We have a wounded thing here, and we need to stop the bleeding,” Greene said. “This is not going to stop all the traffic problems, but we have to stop adding to the problem until we find a way of reducing congestion.”
Similar measures were floated, unsuccessfully, in Newport Beach and Walnut Creek in the mid- 1980s.
The Ojai initiative is believed to be the most restrictive to go before voters.
Not surprisingly, the city has sued to take it off the ballot, arguing the measure runs counter to state law and improperly takes decision-making away from the City Council.
“Basically we would not be able to approve any new projects because they would all have implications on traffic,” City Atty. Monte Widders said. “So it amounts to a de facto moratorium.”
Widders said the measure would have substantial economic consequences and prohibit the city from providing affordable housing.
Prior to Los Arboles, the only housing developments approved in Ojai during the past decade were two low-income projects, one of which is scheduled to break ground June 6.
Demand for that 24-unit housing complex on Fulton Street was evident when about 500 people signed up to receive information. Nonprofit homebuilder Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. took applications from 120 prospective residents. The subsidized houses are expected to sell for between $168,000 and $178,000.
“There is just such an incredible need,” said Karen Flock, housing development director for Cabrillo, which is the county’s leading builder of low-income housing.
“Ojai has the range of incomes as anywhere else,” she said. “People who work at the schools, the tourist industry and local retail establishments need affordable housing.”
City Councilman DeVito knows that traffic is a problem in his community, but he does not believe the proposed initiative is the answer.
And after fighting gridlock on the Orange County Freeway recently, he cautioned that Ojai residents should keep things in perspective.
“Go to the 55 and I-5,” he said. “We have become very spoiled in our comfort zone.”