There was a time when the Pine Mountain Inn hosted the biggest party in town.
Bikers would roar up the tortuous mountain roads north of Ojai, and cowboys would mosey by in their pickups. Hunters — sometimes more than 100 at a time — would camp in Tom Wolf’s field and string fresh deer jerky on clotheslines. The menu boasted of “the purtiest waitresses, best food, lowest prices and only flush toilets within 14 miles in any direction.”
There was no phone and only a generator for power. The Pine Mountain Inn — really a bar and a couple of outbuildings — was so far off the grid that owner Tom Wolf had to haul the beer, burgers and everything else from his home 100 miles away in Oxnard. It was the quirky kind of place that at one time defined what being “out in the county” was all about.
But for seven years, the Pine Mountain Inn has been shuttered — mostly the result, Wolf says, of Ventura County rezoning his land in the 1980s without letting him know what they were about to do. Bikers and hikers still drop by, and Wolf shows up at his sage-dotted 20 acres on most Sundays, handing out cold water to the thirsty, directions to the lost and a complicated tale to the curious.
The bottom line: “Doing business with Ventura County is unfair and unjust,” says Wolf, a white-bearded, 74-year-old retired community college biology teacher. “Everyone around here has some kind of story.”
To the independent types drawn to life in Ventura County’s rugged backcountry, the little bar beneath Skull Rock has become a symbol of government run amok. A Libertarian media outlet, Reason TV, has made a five-minute Internet video called “Zoned Out of Business: The Taking of Pine Mountain Inn,” and a local property rights group points to the bar as an example of public officials advancing an environmentalist agenda.
“It seems like such a travesty,” said Lynn Gray Jensen, director of the Ventura County chapter of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. “What’s the point of what they’re doing to him?”
County officials say Wolf contributed to his own downfall with repeated building and safety violations. They say he could still clean them up and apply to run the inn as a “legal nonconforming use” for a number of years yet to be determined.
“It’s a reasonable accommodation,” said Steve Bennett, the Ventura County supervisor whose district includes the county’s sparsely populated northern reaches. “I certainly have no interest in driving him out of business.”
At the inn on a recent Sunday, some of Wolf’s backcountry neighbors were skeptical. There was talk about Agenda 21, a United Nations environmental plan seen by some on the right as a conspiracy against property rights.
Larry Mosler, an Ojai quarry owner, was fuming about his years-long battle with county regulators. Dick Albright, a retired aerospace engineer who lives in Frazier Park, said he and the county were wrangling in court over alleged violations involving his horse barn.
“We’re orphans out here,” he said. “Everyone’s scared to death of the county.”
Wolf bought the Pine Mountain Inn in 1976. It was an old-fashioned western bar and looks just that way today. The stools are old tractor seats. An ancient, half-strung snowshoe hangs on a wall, along with a couple of rattlesnake skins stretched on boards. Sometime after the business opened, circa 1939, an old-timer named Howard used 204 beer bottles to create a window that still throws a moody light over the bar.
Over the years, county inspectors cited Wolf for numerous alleged violations, including stacking too much firewood, improperly storing a truck and illegally keeping a chicken coop. (A coop was on the property years before, Wolf says, but was gone by the time he came along.)
“You think these are simple violations, but they can take years to clear up and lots of money,” he said. “Some people just up and quit.”
At one point, the county said an outdoor stage was illegal because it was more than 30 inches off the ground. Wolf filled the space with dirt.
“Some people play cards,” he says. “I play county.”
Wolf faced problems more serious than regulation. In 1998, a massive landslide on Highway 33 shut the inn for eight months. In 2002, a 23,000-acre blaze was named the Wolf fire because it started near Wolf’s place — the result, investigators said, of people shooting guns in dry brush, as they did on the informal shooting range behind Wolf’s bar.
After surviving a couple of heart attacks, Wolf, for health reasons, closed the inn in 2005. When he tried to reopen in 2007, county planners told him he couldn’t; his zoning had been changed 21 years earlier, along with that of other properties in the area.
Wolf and his family say that was the first they’d heard of the change. They say the county had his Oxnard address — his property tax bill reached him every year — but he never received a notice of rezoning, something Wolf assures he would have noticed and protested.
His daughter, Tammy Wolf Slack of West Richland, Wash., hired a firm to search county records for any indication that a letter had been mailed.
“We were never notified,” she said.
In 2010, Wolf sued the county, contending he was owed $3.5 million to compensate for unreasonable restrictions that devalued his land. In his suit, he said the county had determined it liked his land better without structures, for its “nice view.”
In its response, the county said it had sent out letters about the rezoning and published legal notices in a local paper, albeit one in Fillmore, far from Wolf’s property. It also cited a state law indicating that failure to receive a notice is not a sufficient defense against a government action.
The suit is pending, according to assistant county counsel Robert Kwong. A judge urged county officials and Wolf to negotiate, but no discussions have taken place. Slack said the county has failed to give her the public records she has requested.
Meanwhile, Wolf doles out free bottles of water and chats up travelers. In a handbill, he lists the name and number of a county building inspector, urging people to call in protest. People pop in asking for directions. Wolf keeps a satellite phone handy — the only reliable communication in his neck of the woods — and has cans of gas for motorists who are running out.
“People tell me we’re in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I tell them that’s just up the road.”