Real estate prices drop $10,000 off median in Ojai, compared to $35,000 countywide
By Daryl Kelley
Ojai showed its resiliency during the deepening real estate recession of 2007, as home prices held relatively firm and sales were off far less than in most other parts of Ventura County and Southern California, according to new figures.
The median price of a home or condo sold in the Ojai area in 2007 was $640,000, off just $10,000 from the year before and only $21,000 below the peak of the market in 2005, reported DataQuick Information Systems this week. Those numbers are for the 93023 ZIP code, which includes Ojai, Meiners Oaks, Mira Monte and the Upper Ojai.
That median price — where half the homes sell for more and half for less — compares with a drop of $35,000 for homes and condos for Ventura County as a whole.
Meanwhile, total sales for the Ojai area ZIP code fell 15 percent from 2006, dropping from 250 to 213. But that compares to a 29 percent drop for Ventura County overall.
The Ojai area, which has relatively small homes, also remained one of the top ZIP codes in the county for price per square foot: Ojai homes brought $461 per square foot, compared with a countywide average of $350. That placed Ojai second in the county, trailing only downtown Ventura, which also has many small houses, and surpassing upscale Westlake Village.
“We have a really unique area and it’s still very desirable to move up here,” said Ojai real estate broker Jeri Becker. “The market’s down everywhere. But compared with elsewhere, it’s doing really well up here.”
The same cannot be said for the Ojai Valley area that includes Oak View, where sales were off 44 percent last year compared with 2006 and the median sales price was off $49,000 to $525,000.
Riki Strandfeldt, president of the Ojai Valley Board of Realtors in 2007, said buyers often associate Oak View more with Ventura than with Ojai, and prices and sales may follow accordingly. “In Oak View, the schools are Ventura and they may shop in Ventura. So it’s, do you want to be part of Ojai or Ventura?”
Even with the city of Ojai’s relatively good news, analysts said things are still slowing down as foreclosures prompted by lending money to unqualified buyers have accelerated in the last half of 2007 and threaten to get worse this year.
Indeed, home sales completed in November and December in both the Ojai and Oak View ZIP codes were the lowest in at least eight years. After strong September and October sales, sales in the last two months in the Ojai area were only 14 and 12, respectively. And only four homes were sold in the first two weeks of January. In Oak View, just one escrow had closed in the first half of this month.
“The market is still very sluggish,” said Coldwell Banker broker Larry Wilde. “And we’re going to see the next six months being very volatile, because foreclosures are going to saturate the market.”
But Wilde, who has sold real estate in Ojai for 33 years, said he thinks he sees light at the end of 2008.
“Toward the end of the year I think we’re going to hit bottom,” he said. “So this year is a window of opportunity. We’ve got rates mortgage rates at 5-1/4 percent for 30 years, which is unbelievably low. And with prices going down, this will be a time to get back into the market.”
Wilde said his office, the Property Shoppe, has 22 new home listings this month alone.
Strandfeldt concurs that 2008 will be a turn-around year.
“I think with the new year, people are a little bit more upbeat,” she said. “The soothsayers say there’s a year’s worth of foreclosures yet. But I think people might want to jump back in before it bottoms out.”
Strandfeldt said she thinks the surge will occur in spring, the traditional time of movement in the real estate market. And some sellers who’ve been reluctant to list their properties because foreclosures are bringing down prices might be willing to list by then, she said.
Ojai Valley home and condo listings totaled more than 200 early last fall, and now stand at 168, Strandfeldt said. But she thinks that is more of a reflection of a seasonal pull-back rather than owners pulling their properties off the market to wait out the downturn.
“There is some of that, people just wanting to wait this thing out,” she said.
But she said she thinks Ojai will continue to survive the nationwide housing tumble because of its artsy, small-town allure.
“Ojai embodies that small-town feel, and there’s value in that,” she said. “Ojai has an upper-end allure. It’s one and a half hours out of L.A. And it has hiking and art and culture and equestrian pursuits. So the question for (Angelenos) is do they want to fly six hours to Montana for those things, or do they want to drive one and a half hours to Ojai?”
In a move to streamline and strengthen its operations and governance, Help of Ojai has completed a restructuring of its board of directors and approved steps to improve grass-roots involvement through new community advisory committees.
Board Chairman Kelly Randall said the actions will make Help more responsive to the demographic trends and changes in human services needs while maintaining the agency’s commitment to traditional services. The action comes after months of internal assessments, cost cutting and staff reductions, prompted by recent financial challenges.
“These moves will give us greater flexibility and the ability to respond more rapidly to challenges in the nonprofit world,” Randall said. “The new management team has stepped up to these challenges and working with Help’s president and chief executive officer, J.R. Jones, will do what’s necessary to restore our fiscal and operational health.”
Approved last week was the formation of a new governance board, comprised initially of five volunteers who are active in the Ojai community with a goal of seven to nine members in the future. They will oversee the agency’s fund raising, public awareness and mission advocacy. The new board replaces the former Help board of directors, which was comprised of up to 15 members. Following are the members of the new board of directors: Karen Evenden, Dave Neville, Alan Rains, Kelly Randall and Peggy Russell.
Chairman Randall is a retired business executive who has been actively involved in Help’s Transportation Program for the past two years and the development of Help’s Baldwin Road facility. Evenden, Randall and Russell served on Help’s former board and have been active in many community organizations over the years. Neville is a private practice attorney in Ojai, and Rains, owner of Rains Department Store, has been a fixture in Ojai’s nonprofit world for more than three decades.
Also approved, but not yet filled, were three advisory committees that will have responsibility for recommending policies and actions in areas of mission advocacy, fund raising and public relations.
Jones said that he was gratified by the board’s action, which he said gives him and the Help of Ojai staff a solid framework with which to carry on their day-to-day assignments and make the agency a better servant of public needs.
Anti-gang unit credited with drop in youth assaults
By Daryl Kelley
Serious crime in Ojai rose slightly last year, but felony violence dropped to its lowest level since at least 1990, because efforts to reduce youth-gang assaults were successful, police said this week.
New statistics show that while overall crime inched upward because of petty theft, serious violent offenses were off sharply thanks to a drop in felony assaults, a category of crime often influenced by gang activity.A new Sheriff’s Department anti-gang unit began operations last spring in western Ventura County, including the Ojai Valley, and authorities credit that with contributing to a sharp reduction in assaults. Also, a spate of gang-related violence in 2006 prompted the conviction of a dozen youths, taking them off the street at least temporarily.
“It’s exceptionally low, and it’s definitely related to less youth-gang activity,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Bruce Norris, who functions as Ojai’s police chief. “You could see it was down by what the deputies are doing here in the city.”
The most serious gang-related violence locally last year was a drive-by shooting on Drown Street in February, when a shooter from out of town wounded an east Ojai resident. There was another drive-by shooting early this month, when a 17-year-old high school student was shot in the leg, but not seriously wounded, at the corner of Ojai Avenue and Fox Street.
“The last three major incidents we’ve had were not the result of (Ojai) gang members assaulting people: they were the victims of the assaults,” Norris said. “It was somebody else’s aggression.”
Overall, there were 263 major crimes in Ojai last year, up six offenses from 2006 and the highest level since 1995, the Sheriff’s Department reported this week.
All of that increase was the result of a jump in thefts.
Still, home and business burglaries were off.
And criminal violence plummeted by almost half, from 19 in 2006 during a spate of gang assaults to just 10 last year. The city experienced no murders, two rapes and three robberies. One rape was by a longtime live-in boyfriend and the other is still under investigation because of inconsistent stories by the victim.
The robberies were by an ex-employee of Sea Fresh restaurant, a man who demanded cash in Libbey Park then shot the victim with a BB gun, and a heist of a branch of Rabobank.
Serious assaults, often a marker of gang activity, fell from 17 to five.
The biggest spike was in petty theft, which is defined as a loss of property worth less than $400. Those minor thefts increased from 137 to 156, while grand theft was up from 41 to 50. Auto thefts remained constant at six. And there were no arsons in Ojai last year, compared with one the year before.
Norris noted the same trends in 2007 that prompted a dramatic increase in crime the year before, the theft of valuables from cars and citizens’ relaxed attitude about securing their property.
“The rise in the crime rate is tied to the rise in thefts,” Norris said. “There have just been a rash of thefts from vehicles. It’s just a widespread phenomenon, not just in Ojai. So people just have to get a lot more careful about not leaving valuables in their cars.”
Hiking trailheads are one popular spot locally for auto burglaries, Norris said. “They don’t hesitate to smash a window if they see something they want,” he said.
The increase in thefts is related not only to vehicle burglaries but also to thefts at local schools, Norris said.
The school thefts often included the loss of MP players, I-pods or cell phones from backpacks or lockers, he said.
Police have been successful in many of the theft cases, he said.
“Many suspects in these thefts from vehicles have been arrested: We have seen a sharp decrease since October,” Norris wrote in a brief analysis of the year’s trends. “(And the) school resource officer has made several arrests related to school thefts.”
When all eight categories of serious property and violent crime are taken together, the number of crimes per 1,000 Ojai residents — the city’s crime rate — increased 3 percent last year to 32.34.
That’s nearly twice as high as the overall crime rate for all five cities and the unincorporated area that the Sheriff’s Department patrols.
By comparison, Thousand Oaks had a crime rate of 16.46 crimes per 1,000 residents, Moorpark 17.21, Camarillo 17.76 and Fillmore 23.7.
By Nao Braverman
Free rides after cocktails begins Friday on the hour from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the Village Jester. Stops along the route include the Deer Lodge and The Hut. Call 640-8001 for the complete route.
The Ojai Valley had the misfortune of a significant number of tragic collisions since Dec. 11, resulting in four fatalities and some serious injuries.
The most recent serious accident involving Roger Avery, has reenforced the concern of driving under the influence in Ojai.
As a town with more night life than one might expect in such a small community, there is essentially no sensible or reliable public transportation after dark.
Even before the tragic accident involving Avary, Nigel Chisholm, owner of the new Ojai restaurant and bar establishment, The Village Jester, had an idea that would make it easier for community members to safely and legally enjoy a night on the town.
Beginning next week, local bars and restaurants are pooling funds to hire a weekend evening shuttle service that will circle local establishments, hourly, transporting passengers to various stops throughout the valley.
“As a new business owner I get asked two or three times a night to get a taxi service,” said Chisholm, “But there is presently no one reliable who I can call.”
The shuttle service is to leave the Village Jester from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m, Friday and Saturday evenings, leaving every hour on the hour. The exact route is still undecided. But organizers are considering stops from downtown, all the way to Boccali’s and back through town stopping near Vons, then heading to the Deer Lodge and Q-Time, south to Circle K and back. If passengers want to be taken home, they may be able to for a little extra charge, said Chisholm. The details are still being worked out.
But the biggest hurdle, finding a driver to do the job, has already been taken care of.
Dutch VanHemert, owner of Dutch Detail who also runs an airport shuttle service, readily agreed to take on the task. Since VanHemert is already operating a shuttle service, the vehicle and insurance coverage are conveniently at hand.
VanHemert said, “I think it will be a great service and I hope people will be smart enough to use it.”
Chisholm came up with the concept about a month ago and recently approached Ojai bar and restaurant owners, to see if they would participate and share costs of the service. So far participating establishments include local bars, the soon-to-be-reopened Hub, Movino’s, and restaurants Azu, tentatively the Deer Lodge, Q-Time, Feast Bistro, Il Giardino’s, Antonio’s, and, of course, the Village Jester, according to Chisholm.
Chisholm plans to approach Boccali’s, Sakura, and The Hut in the coming week to see if they are interested in participating.
Robert Chaing, owner of Giorgio’s said he was still undecided.
“It’s definitely a great idea. I’m not sure if it’s for us. My clients are beer and wine drinkers. We are more the family side,” said Chaing. “On the rare case that my customers get out of hand I take them home myself.”
With 10 establishments involved, the service will be paid for at a minimum cost to each, said Chisholm. The shuttle will either be free or cost a very small amount, to passengers, he said.
According to the Business and Profession Code 25602, anyone who serves alcohol to a habitual drinker or anyone obviously intoxicated is guilty of a misdemeanor. Though a law in 38 states makes any business selling alcoholic drinks to an obviously intoxicated person strictly liable to anyone injured by the drunk guest, in California that liability is limited to drunk minors, according to Leslie Pond, an investigator for the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
But Chisholm’s motives are more community service oriented. “As a servers of alcohol we have a moral responsibility to give people an opportunity to get home safely,”he said.
Though local alcohol servers say their staff is trained not to serve people who are obviously intoxicated, many believe the service could be a real asset to the community, and make the roads generally safer on weekends.
“We consider ourselves to be an upscale dining establishment with some people having wine before a meal,” said Laurel Moore, owner of Azu. “But there hasn’t been a taxi service for people to use, so I think it would be a very good idea.”
The service begins its six-month trial run next weekend.
The entry to Lake Casitas is guarded by a sign warning boaters about the quagga mussel invasion and inspections to prevent the infestation. Casitas Municipal Water District is investigating ways to halt the infestation and is expected to make a decision at its board meeting in February
By Daryl Kelley
Despite pleas to act quickly to stop a potential infestation of a destructive mussel, Casitas Municipal Water District put off Wednesday for at least a month any decision on closing Lake Casitas to outside boats to protect the Ojai Valley’s water supply.
Casitas staff members investigating how to combat an invasive mussel that has caused billions of dollars in damage in the Great Lakes area, and has now reached Southern California, said it would take at least until Feb. 20 to present to the board a well-researched set of options.
The Casitas board had said it would deal with the issue at its Feb. 13 meeting.
But Wednesday directors said the issue is so complex they could not hear the issue fully until either Feb. 20 or March 4, depending on the availability of experts and how quickly directors learn how much a quagga mussel infestation would cost to combat and whether it could ever be controlled.
The board will also receive estimates of how much money closure of the lake, a prime bass fishery, would cost the district and surrounding businesses.
Possible actions include closing Lake Casitas to all outside boats, the hot-water spraying of all boats entering the lake, adding storage for boats to be used only at the lake and increasing the number of rental boats for fishing.
The pivotal public hearing would probably be held at the Oak View Community Center, since an overflow crowd of 85 people, mostly concerned fishermen, attended a Jan. 9 discussion about how to keep the mussel out of Lake Casitas. The water district was cited by the Ventura County Fire Department for unsafe conditions, because the crowd was about twice as large as allowed in the water district’s small meeting room.
The board will also consider at that hearing a new threat just discovered in San Bernardino County, the existence of the zebra mussel in a lake there. It was the first zebra mussel, a cousin of the quagga, found in the western United States, officials said.
Both types of mussels are suspected of traveling from lake to lake by boat, although the quagga mussel’s migration northward, after it was discovered at Lake Mead and Lake Havasu a year ago, has apparently occurred in the sprawling canal system of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The infestation of the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes area, discovered two decades ago after the mollusk migrated from the Ukraine aboard ships, now costs utilities about $140 million a year to try to control and to clean encrusted facilities, Casitas spokesman Ron Merkling told the board.
The pernicious mussel could ravage the Lake Casitas ecosytem and clog its waterworks, costing millions of dollars to control and to clean pipes, valves and the lake’s water treatment plant, officials have estimated.
“I’m still amazed there hasn’t been a declaration of emergency on this,” Director Pete Kaiser said.
Casitas Recreation Area manager Brian Roney, the pointman on the mussel inquiry, said the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns many of the infested lakes in California and Lake Casitas Dam and Reservoir, has done very little to combat the problem.
And the state Department of Fish and Game, the lead California agency, has received almost no money to sound warnings or to implement computer tracking systems to red-flag boats that leave infested lakes before they enter clean ones, he said.
“Are they waiting for an agency such as us to declare an emergency?” Kaiser asked.
“It’s a mess,” Roney said. “It’s not on their radar.”
Seven California lakes are infested with the quagga mussel. One lake near Escondido has been closed to boats to prevent infestation.
Roney said he favored a “passport” system under which a sticker would be attached to a boat when it enters an infested lake, and which rangers at Lake Casitas could easily see. But he said that suggestion has not been acted on. Also, infested lakes in Arizona and Nevada would not be required to follow a California passport system, he said.
As Casitas District directors continued to grapple with the thorny mussel issue, two speakers implored them Wednesday to close the lake immediately to secure the water supply of 70,000 residents in the Ojai Valley and western Ventura and hundreds of large farms.
Two speakers, both fishermen, also asked the board not to act hastily by closing the lake before all the facts are in.
“I would like to suggest that the board adopt an emergency measure prohibiting the entry of any boat through the gate until suitable equipment is found for contamination and it is found 100 percent effective, or that a quarantine procedure is identified that is 100 percent effective,” valley resident Ralph Steele told the board.
“My point,” he added, “is to save the lake first and then allow outside boats back in … After the lake has been protected then we can talk about boating and fishing.”
Ojai resident Larry Yuva, also a fisherman, joined Steele in asking directors to close the lake now as a precaution.”
“Before you consider all the science, consider the ratepayer: they’re why you guys are sitting up there. … Everything else is secondary,” Yuva said. “It’s just ridiculous you haven’t taken the first step of closing the lake.”
But Larry Elshere of Ojai asked the board not to react out of fear.
“If we live in fear none of us would ever leave our homes,” he said.” With properly trained people and equipment we can defeat this enemy.”
Fisherman Gary Lumas thanked the board for moving to protect one of the best bass fisheries in the nation. He said agencies throughout California are waiting to see what Casitas does to protect the lake as a water and recreational resource.
“As a fisherman I will do whatever it takes,” Lumas said. “But, please, don’t do anything until the science is in. As fishermen, we do support you guys. … And our neighbors are waiting to see what you do.”
Marine biologist David Wilson distributed to the board a research paper by state of New York scientists that suggests progress in the fight against the damaging mussels.
He distributed to the board a 2007 report which concludes that dead bacteria may be safely spread in lakes to kill mussels, once the voracious mollusk eats it.
Now, Great Lakes power plants and water distribution agencies attempt to control the mussels with chlorine and other poisonous chemicals, the report noted. But that has been challenged by environmentalists as a long-term solution, the report said.
Casitas Director Russ Baggerly said, however, that the new biological attack uses a poisonous bacteria. Wilson said the bacteria is safe, because it would be spread only after it was dead. Humans and other lake animals would not be harmed, he said.
For clarification on such issues, Baggerly asked that one of the two top mussel experts in California be brought to Oak View to attend the Casitas hearing next month or in March.
“Science is going to be paramount in whatever decision we make,” Baggerly said.
Board President Jim Word assured the public: “This is a vital issue … It affects the community at large — cities — users. It’s going to be aired fully before a decision is made.
If Time Warner inks deal with state, it will likely be curtains for local television shows
By Nao Braverman
Public access television stations, known to feature quirky television shows with all the amateur charm of low-budget production and editing, may be heading for demise in California, and even sooner in Ojai.
Popularized by Wayne and Garth’s “Saturday Night Live” skit in the late 1980s, many such shows across the country have garnered a cult following.
Aside from the homegrown appeal of locally produced television, public access stations are still arguably a one-of-a-kind forum for public comment. Succeeding the traditional soap box, they reach members of the public who don’t read letters to the editor and are not yet computer literate.
But things are looking grim for followers of John Wilcock’s off-beat visual travelogue “Wait a Minute” and Lee Fitzgerald’s local news show, if Time Warner, Ojai’s local cable provider, decides to transfer its franchise agreement from the city to the state.
AB 2987, the Digital Infrastructure and Competition Act of 2006, allows cable companies to franchise with the state of California instead of individual cities this year. That could relieve providers such as Time Warner Cable, of the responsibility of operating a local public access studio.
Each service provider will still be required to make available the public education and government channel which televises meetings of local government, whether their franchise agreement lies with the city or the state. But the responsibility of operating that channel would then be transferred to the city by 2009.
That doesn’t change a whole lot in terms of televising meetings, according to city manager Jere Kersnar, as meetings are currently recorded and edited by a city employee. Moreover, the cable company, if franchised with the state, would still be required to provide the city with funds to cover the cost of recording equipment. But it doesn’t protect any non-government related shows currently televised on Ojai’s channel 10.
Kersnar said he did not envision the city funding the operation of a public access studio for anything more than televised City Council meetings.
“It’s an economy of scale thing,” he said. “As a practical matter I just don’t see how we could.”
Carole McCartney who coordinated Ojai’s public access station for many years before leaving the station last May, said that if the cable company was no longer responsible for local public access broadcasting and the city didn’t have funds to run one, it would have to be up to the community to make it happen.
One important asset that public access provides for Ojai is another tool for disaster preparedness, said McCartney.
“We are a small isolated community surrounded by mountains, and we need local coverage in case of an emergency.”
She suggested that if Time Warner were to stop running the public access studio, local organizations such as the Youth Foundation could run it instead with help from the community.
Time Warner still has a franchise agreement with Ojai that was extended for another year at the end of November 2007.
Patricia Fregoso, spokesperson for Time Warner’s Southern California region said that though the company has terminated franchise agreements with three Ventura County cities, and transferred their franchise agreements to the state level, it was still undecided in regards to Ojai.
“We would have to access requirements of the local franchise vs. the state’s and determine what makes the best business sense for us,” she said. She added that the existing franchise with the city was solid for another year and that no changes would be made without prior notification to the city.
But Bill Rosendahl, former CEO of Southern California Adelphia, Ojai’s cable provider before Time Warner and present Los Angeles councilman, said that Time Warner would probably toss out public access to cut costs.
“It’s generally viewed by cable providers as something they keep in order fulfill their franchise agreement,” he said. “If they can get rid of it they will.”
The law allowing cable companies to franchise with the state was preceded by another state law allowing telephone companies to provide the same services as cable, said Rosendahl. Since telephone companies could franchise with the state providing similar services, cable companies were also granted that right. Though it was ostensibly enacted in order to improve services by increasing competition, it had the negative effect of distancing providers from the communities they serve.
McCartney said that she experienced the cons of that rift when Adelphia was bought out by Time Warner, a much larger corporation. Employees were overburdened with added responsibilities and a plethora of additional paperwork.
Supervisors were less accessible and it was difficult know who to talk to about upgrading public access equipment.
“I never had a feeling that any one I was talking to was sympathetic to public access,” she said.
With a state-based franchise agreement, the gap would likely increase, said McCartney.
Things are not looking up for public access television statewide, according to Rosendahl. Some public access shows like Los Angeles’s oddball “Let’s Paint T.V” have followed the shifting tides in media outlets and moved on to the internet utilizing You-Tube, and Myspace. Wilcock has also been airing his travelogue on his own web page.
But such one-of-a-kind broadcasts are easily lost in the sea of online posts. Locally focused creators would lose immediate access to their target audience and distance themselves from community-oriented programming.
Nonetheless the tide is changing in media service providers.
Time Warner would be smart to keep Ojai’s public access services, according to Rosendahl. Only time will tell. But, as Fregoso stated, Time Warner’s decision on whether to franchise with the city or state will be made from a business perspective.
Ojai resident Harold Richards died at approximately 5:45 a.m. Thursday before he lost control of his 1998 Ford Contour on Highway 33 in Mira Monte, according to a statement issued by the California Highway Patrol. In the preliminary report, the CHP stated Richards was southbound approaching Villanova Road at an unknown speed when his vehicle drifted into the northbound lane. He then swerved back onto the southbound lane’s shoulder where he lost control, and the front of his car struck a concrete abutment before it rolled over on its left side and struck a power pole. He was pronounced dead at the scene. In the revised statement, Mr. Richards, 74, died of natural causes and not from injuries sustained in the traffic collision.
Three of 16 spills, resulting in $350,000 penalty, occurred in Ojai’s backcountry
By Nao Braverman
After causing three oil spills in the Los Padres National Forest, and 13 other spills countywide, Vintage Production California, LLC and its parent company Occidental Petroleum Corporation are finally beginning to pay their dues.
The companies were fined $350,000 by the state last week for the 16 oil spills which occurred in a span of three years.
“In addition to paying the fine, the oil industry must take additional steps to ensure that our creeks and wildlife do not have to suffer one more spill,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres Forest Watch, a nonprofit watchdog organization for the Los Padres National Forest.
Nearly a year ago, on Jan. 30, a broken Vintage Production oil line in the Sespe oil fields let five 42-gallon barrels of oil and 50 gallons of groundwater spill onto the forest floors. Just one week later on Feb. 6, a second leak in the same pipe had been discovered to spill 20 gallons of medium weight oil mixed with 80 gallons of groundwater. Spilled oil was estimated to have traveled three miles down Tar Creek in the northwest Hopper Mountain area, 20 miles east of Ojai, near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. The first spill in Los Padres National Forest occurred on April 1, 2006 spilling an unknown amount of oil into Four Forks Creek.
The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office announced the settlement last week. The amount includes civil penalties, reimbursement for damage to natural resources and costs to government agencies in responding to the 16 Ventura County oil spills.
By Sondra Murphy
An Upper Ojai couple got help from television’s “Dog Whisperer” in training their dogs to assist them with their cattle ranch. The dog behaviorist came to Black Mountain Ranch Thursday to help Ellen and Richard Gilleland work with three border collies named Mickey, Maggie and Mollie, as well as a German shepherd named Barney.
Ellen Gilleland attended one of Cesar Milan’s seminars last autumn. At the end of the seminar, people were given cards to submit questions to Milan. Gilleland asked if he would be interested in coming to teach her dogs to herd cattle. Two weeks ago, Gilleland heard from the show that Milan would like to take her up on her offer while filming a segment of “Dog Whisperer.”
The Gillelands’ dogs range in age from 2 to 4 years and are smart, as their breeds are known to be. The ranch keeps 150 head of Limousin cattle on 3,700 acres, grazing in the spring. “We bring them down to the ranch in the summer once they eat everything up north,” said Gilleland. “It would be nice if the dogs could help herd them.”
Five of the ranch’s cattle were used for the session and Gilleland said that their border collies took to the training very well. “Maggie, Mollie and Mickey did better than we thought they would, having not worked cattle before.” She said that the border collies quickly began following the lead herd dogs.
The German shepherd was less cooperative. “Barney absolutely has the instinct to chase them, rather than herd them,” Gilleland said. They suspected beforehand that Barney would be less inclined for the task, but they wanted to give him a chance.
Milan brought Daddy along: his favorite pit bull companion and poster dog for his calm and assertive approach. Milan also complimented the Gillelands on their dogs being so well behaved. “Cesar’s an amazing person. He has a special gift to be able to communicate with dogs the way he does,” said Gilleland. “He really enjoyed himself and it was a new experience for him to work with herding animals.”
Gilleland said that more training would be required before the border collies could assist them in cattle herding, as she is aware of the risk of injury. “We haven’t really decided yet if we will have further training,” she said.
“Dog Whisperer” airs on the National Geographic Channel on Fridays at 8 p.m. The Gilleland episode is expected to air this summer.
Ventura County Sheriff’s traffic investigators evaluate the scene Tuesday morning after an Ojai woman reportedly stepped onto Ojai Avenue near Bald Street and into the path of a police car driven by Deputy Victor Medina. According to Sgt. Rick Harwood, Diana Nordli, 54, was attempting to walk southbound across east Ojai Avenue when the collision occurred. Nordli was not in a crosswalk and she was not crossing at an intersection. Deputy Medina immediately stopped and began providing first aid to her. Nordli was taken to the Ojai Valley Community Hospital’s emergency room with multiple, but non-life-threatening injuries, including two broken legs, a broken arm and shoulder. She was later transferred to the Ventura County Medical Center.
Photo by Rob Clement
If Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plans holds, local schools would lose 33 teachers
By Sondra Murphy
The state’s budget problems are spilling over into public schools again. Last week’s proposed 2008-2009 budget by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger includes a 10 percent across-the-board reduction, which would impact nearly every general fund program of every department within each branch of the state government.
“It is not a good budget for education,” said Ojai Unified School District superintendent Tim Baird at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “At this point the governor is looking at a $4.5 billion reduction in education. That translates anywhere from a seven to 10 percent cut.”
If Schwarzenegger’s budget is not modified, Baird and assistant superintendent of business and administrative services Danielle Pusatere are estimating approximately $2 million in cuts will be necessary for OUSD to remain financially solvent. “A lot of the projections are talking about a $300 dollar decline per student and no cost of living increase of any kind,” said Baird. “We’ve been here before, but it was a whole lot easier because we were at the beginning of the enrollment decline.”
Baird said the cuts have a powerful negative impact on the district. “If this budget were to come to fruition, that would be about 33 teachers. That’s all of the teachers at Nordhoff. You could close all the elementary schools and not make a dent in this. We could eliminate all of nutrition services, grounds, transportation and maintenance and not make a dent. We could get rid of all district administrators and not make a dent. If this budget happens, we are in a bad spot.”
Baird referenced the fact that California has again fallen in money spent on public school students. “This falls on the heels of Quality Counts data,” he said, referring to the annual report card given to states based on student investment. “California fell back to 43rd in the nation. We are approximately $2,000 behind the national average. Talk about going backwards. This is a huge hit on the education community.”
Even if Sacramento alters the budget later, “This is the budget we will have to work from,” said Pusatere. “Our reserves won’t cover it either.”
“We have been very creative in the past on dodging these budget cuts,” said Baird. “This budget can’t happen. There’s no way we can pull a rabbit out of this hat.”
District administrators will be working on creating next year’s budget and to bring a plan to the board next month to address the predicament. Meanwhile, they will be meeting with various county and state school officials to get direction on how to counter the shortfall.
“Maybe there are some budget ideas we could organize,” suggested board President Steve Fields.
The board agreed that it will most likely take a collective approach to solve the financial challenges the state budget crisis has created. “I think it’s a great idea that we start talking a letter-writing campaign,” said Baird. Other ideas will be presented for discussion at the March 4 OUSD board meeting.
By Daryl Kelley
When Mike Montano looks down from his hilltop home at the mouth of the Ojai Valley, the 44-year-old photographer sees a tranquil, wooded setting —the Ventura River Valley on one side and Coyote Creek on the other.
“It was the first house we would ever own and it was fantastic,” said Montano, whose move from New York City in 2002 ended at Foster Park, a cluster of about 80 homes hidden amid towering oak and sycamore trees. “We loved the privacy and the quietness.”
But now, Montano said he and his wife, Tanya Smith-Montano, and their 10-year-old daughter fear the peaceful life into which they invested their savings may be threatened. And not by a rogue developer, but by the county of Ventura.
The County Parks Department is chopping down trees and leveling hillside pads for 11 recreational vehicle sites just across the creek from Montano’s property at the Red Mountain Campground.
Montano and his neighbors think the change could alter the natural flow of life in their community, where deer are regular visitors and bears wander in from time to time. And where it’s so quiet residents can hear the screech of an animal’s kill from the surrounding woods.
That’s why, in concerned telephone calls and e-mails to county officials this week, several Foster Park residents have asked how the county can so alter the natural park benefactor E.P. Foster deeded for recreational use in 1920. And how the county could do it without a word to those who live nearby.
“This whole thing is being pushed because the county wants to make a few more dollars,” said Montano. “And they’re doing it on my back without notifying us or asking about the impact.”
Ron Van Dyck, who manages county parks, said Foster Park residents have it wrong; that the county just wants to make enough money to cover just wants to make enough money to cover maintenance of the refurbished recreational vehicle park, while providing county residents a more rustic alternative as a getaway.
The county was not required to notify anyone of camp improvements, Van Dyck said, because camping was already permitted at 17 existing primitive campsites, which had been closed years ago for lack of money to maintain them or to hire someone to supervise the camp 24 hours a day.
Now, with $212,000 in improvements approved by the Board of Supervisors last month, the refurbished camp will provide 10 recreational vehicle sites and a site for a full-time camp host, along with modern rest rooms completed with the first phase of the campground restoration. The total cost, paid by a 2002 state parks bond, will be about $500,000, Van Dyck said.
“We’ve been wanting to do this for years, but just didn’t have the money,” he said. “In hind-sight you could probably say we should have told (neighbors) we were going to do it, but it wasn’t like we were trying to hide something.”
The improvements were ratified over a period of years, he said, at the County Parks Advisory Commission. And there was a newspaper article about the improvements last year.
“Our goal has always been to open the park back up,” he said. “It does give county residents a greater variety of areas they can visit. It’s more rustic, more secluded.”
Nor does Van Dyck think the refurbished camp will be a noisy neighbor.
“Our typical RV camper is retired,” he said. “They’re very quiet.”
And if the Red Mountain camp does draw noisy visitors, the camp host will quiet them down, he said. “Quiet hours” will be enforced between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., he said.
Nor will campers run noisy generators for power, a common problem with campgrounds, because the refurbished campground will have electricity at every site paid for as part of the camping fee.
“They’ll be plugged into power, like it was a hotel room,” Van Dyck said.
But some Foster Park residents are not assuaged.
One recent morning residents Doug Parent and Tom Malone gathered near the Coyote Creek Bridge to point out the proximity of the campground to their homes.
“It’s about 300 feet,” said Parent, 40, who runs a Santa Barbara communications business. “This campground hasn’t been used for 30 years, and now they’re going to change our way of life.”
Malone added: “In the night you can hear a mountain lion catch a deer over there. It’s dead quiet. All that will be drowned out now.”
“To be in the center of nature,” said Parent, a resident for nine years. “That’s why we moved here.”
Malone, 46, a real estate appraiser, said he is most concerned that the county is ignoring restrictions Ventura businessman and banker E.P. Foster must have placed on the Foster Park property when he deeded the 300 acres of mountain and valley woodlands to the county in honor of his son, who died at age 7.
“I think Mr. Foster would turn over in his grave if he knew that the 300 acres that he gave as a memorial for a child that he loved so dearly was being turned into a cash cow for Ventura County bureaucrats,” Malone said.
But Van Dyck said the county has carefully followed restrictions on the Foster gift. He said a proposal to allow an outside concessionaire to run the park was rejected for that reason.
“There was an issue of having a lease operator come in,” he said. “And we found that could not happen for that reason. But that was the only (restriction) we found in the deed.”
“Our goal here is not to make money,” the parks chief said. “It’s just to make the cost of maintenance and to open the park back up to the public.”
On Dec. 11, the Board of Supervisors awarded a $212,000 contract to Roydan Contracting of Camarillo for the second phase of improvements to Foster Park. The contract will provide for a new entryway, road repaving, and landscaping with native plants in the day use area, while the Red Mountain Campground will get new tables, grills, repaving, and camp site improvements.
The project is the second phase of $498,000 of improvements to Foster Park funded primarily with 2002 Proposition 12 state bond measure grant funds. The first phase improvements included restoration of the historic stone lions at the entry and Foster Memorial, trailhead improve-ments, and new rest rooms.
County Supervisor Steve Bennett said at the time of approval: “These improvements will restore the luster to this park for many years to come. This investment will enhance the public’s enjoyment of the Foster family’s donation to the community and is a great complement to our other park improvements around the valley.”
By Nao Braverman
Longtime Ojai residents remember when the abandoned concrete block on 1202 E. Ojai Ave. was once an integral part of Ojai’s night life, a thriving business that catered to all ages.
Last known as the Ojai Valley Bowl, the 16-lane bowling alley had a coffee shop and restaurant at the entrance, a lounge with a full bar in the back, and even a small pro shop where bowling balls and other equipment could be purchased.
Local bowlers practiced daily and Ojai’s kids celebrated birthdays there. Five nights a week, bowlers participated in organized leagues.
But for the past 10 years the dilapidated building has remained unoccupied. Deemed structurally unsound by the planning department in recent years, and occasionally occupied by vagrants, the property now wards off all such visitors with a forbidding chain-link fence.
Current property owner Gail Bazzano, a Louisiana resident, said there was still a chance she might bring the old bowling alley back. After confirming rumors that a Los Angeles woman had expressed interest in resurrecting the bowling business, she said the proposal is still up in the air.
“We’re tossing around the idea to see how much interest people in Ojai would have,” she said. “Before putting four to five million dollars into something, we would want to know if people are really going to use it. We really don’t know at this point. We’re still doing research.” she said.
Bazzano, who purchased the property seven years ago, initially planned to fill the building with retail and office spaces. With a daughter living in Santa Monica she frequently visits, Bazzano was interested in purchasing the nearby lot with the hopes of developing it.
“I love Ojai, it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” she said.
But she recalls the planning officials she met with in 2002 told her she could not keep the building where it was, set back from the street.
“They told me I was going to have to tear it down and move it to the sidewalk. The building had to have parking behind it and not in front, which created a huge problem for me because I didn’t want to tear the building down,” she said.
City manager Jere Kersnar, who was not employed with the city at the time of her application, explained that the building was structurally unsound and did not meet seismic standards; primarily because of a groundwater problem that caused the building to flood after significant rainfall. As the cost to retrofit the building was greater than the cost of new construction, by the Planning department’s estimation, the Planning Commission has asked Bazzano to move it to the street.
Bazzano still intends to use the old building. Recent studies have revealed ways to bring the building up to building standards more cost effectively than a complete reconstruction, she said.
“Despite the fact that it has been vacant for a while, we shouldn’t lift our general design regulations for the sake of expediency,” said Kersnar.
Nonetheless, few could argue that a bowling center of some kind would be preferred by most residents over the present eyesore that has marred East Ojai Avenue for at least 10 years.
“Whatever regulations there are could certainly be worked around,” he said.
The former owner, Winifred Boersch, who sold it to Bazzano, last opened the doors to allowed Oprah Winfrey to film “Before Women Had Wings,” a 1997 made-for-television movie, and also proposed to turn the property into a Rite Aid to the opposition of many locals in 1998.
Before that, Planning Department records reveal a sign permit was issued to Joseph and Cherie Borgaro, and a conditional use permit was issued to Robert and Mary Oblinger in 1982. The first permit was issued to Ralph Jost in 1960 when it was initially opened as Topa Lanes.
Bazzano had set her plans aside after initially being rejected by planning officials. “It has only been the past six months or a year that I have been considering the idea of making it a bowling alley again,” she said. “I would love to know if the residents are interested. If the townspeople would really use a bowling alley and really want it made, I would be a willing participant.”
Independence day committee names noted Ojai fundraiser as grand marshal
By Linda Harmon
It’s that time of the year again to plan your Fourth of July, at least if you’re on the Ojai Independence Day Committee. The committee began the process by selecting Joan Kemper as this year’s grand marshal.
“We received nominations and voted last week to nominate Joan,” said Nancy Hill, chairman. “She’s done so much for the arts community. We received many letters talking about her positive energy saying she is so dedicated she has kept others dedicated.”
Hill cited nomination letters spotlighting Kemper’s work in many organizations around the valley, especially involving fund-raising activities for Help of Ojai, Ojai Festivals, OPAT and the Ojai Valley Youth Foundation. Hill also mentioned a partial list of projects credited to Kemper’s involvement in the nominations, including the Libbey Park footbridge, Cluff Vista Park and the restoration of the Libbey Park pergola.
“Can you believe it?” said Kemper, when discussing the announcement and protesting her right to the title. “It’s such a great honor. There are many more out there who deserve it more, but I’m very flattered and it will be great fun. I look forward to it.”
Asked about her upcoming projects she mentioned getting the Ojai Performing Arts Center built, adding with a chuckle, “… if I live long enough.” Kemper said she is closing in on the final funding and hopes to announce a start date later this year.
Kemper’s duties besides reigning over the parade from the Ojai Avenue grandstand will include her introduction at the free July 3 concert at Libbey Bowl that will have a ‘40s, big band theme, and again presiding over the July 4 fireworks display at Nordhoff High School.
“We are very honored to have her,” said Hill.
Oscar-winning screenwriter now due in court Feb. 15
By Lenny Roberts
A single-vehicle crash early on the morning of Jan 13 on East Ojai Avenue in front of Ojai Lumber killed a 34-year-old man reportedly visiting from Italy. The visitor, Andreas Zini, was pronounced dead at the Ventura County Medical Center several hours after the 12:34 a.m. accident.
According to Ojai Chief of Police Bruce Norris, the driver of the car, Ojai resident Roger Avary, 42, failed to negotiate a turn in the highway and crashed into a power pole.
Avary was uninjured, but his 40-year-old wife, Gretchen, was ejected from the couple’s 2000 Mercedes and discovered by deputies lying in the road. She was transported to the Ojai Valley Community Hospital with serious, but non-life-threatening injuries, according to Norris. Roger Avary was booked on suspicion of felony DUI and felony gross vehicular manslaughter.
A statement released Monday by publicist Julie Polkes states, “Roger wishes to publicly convey his heartfelt condolences to the family of the deceased. Words cannot express how sorry he is, and this tragic accident will always haunt him.”
Avary, a screenwriter, director and producer who won an Oscar in 1994 for co-authoring “Pulp Fiction,” was released after posting $50,000 bail, and is scheduled to appear in court Feb. 15.
Ojai Avenue was closed for 90 minutes on Monday while Ventura County Sheriff’s Department traffic investigators researched the accident scene.
Senior Deputy Jim Popp reconstructs the traffic collision in front of Ojai Lumber Monday afternoon.Popp said, “This is just a horrific ending. I’m sorry for all involved.”
Photo by Rob Clement
Requirements to allow 433 units by 2014 seen as threat to air quality, water
By Nao Braverman
The City Council determined Tuesday night that with Ojai’s small town character and quality of life at stake, they would consider opposing the state’s housing mandates.
The Regional Housing Needs Assessment requires that Ventura County must allow for the construction of 28,481 units to be built by 2014, with 433 being in Ojai. Six of those have already been constructed but many vocal residents and council members agree that a daunting 426 new units would be far more than Ojai’s air quality and infrastructure can handle.
“It is imprudent, even disingenuous to submit a plan that encourages a density that is counter to the city’s General Plan” said Ojai resident Jim Jackson. At least seven residents echoed his concerns, and added that they feared the deterioration of local water infrastructure, air quality and disaster preparedness.
“What if we don’t accommodate those RHNA numbers?” asked Mayor Sue Horgan.
Though the city itself is not required to build the 400 plus units, it would not be able to deny developers the right to build them.
Generally a city’s plan is evaluated by the State Department of Housing and Community Development and is eventually granted approval. Some cities do not receive approval and thus certify themselves, said city attorney Monte Widders. In that case a city must defend its plan if challenged in court, without backing from the state. That does not exempt a city from formulating a plan to accommodate those new units, it only means that the city did not get approval for its plan from the State Department of Housing and Community Development, Widders clarified.
Council members then inquired about what would happen if the city decided not accommodate such a huge number.
City manager Jerre Kersnar along with Widders agreed to investigate the possible legal ramifications if Ojai decided not to make room for the 426 new units mandated by the state.
City consultant Tom Figg had earlier stated that about 10 percent of California cities are not in compliance with housing mandates. Another approx-imately 11 percent are in the process or not yet due for evaluation.
“Some of these communities are non-compliant by not having adopted or updated a Housing Element in compliance with applicable deadlines or have chosen to self-certify,” he said.
Among those are Goleta, Pismo Beach, Grover Beach and Atascadero. The latter two are in the process of trying to become certified, according to Figg. Grover Beach let its housing elements to lapse, because it lacked financial resources and had more pressing priorities to attend to. Pismo Beach lacked available and affordable land, he said. Both noted the lack of access to grants but neither had any legal pressure to immediately adopt a Housing Element.
Mayor Horgan asked city staff to investigate more cities that were out of compliance and find out if there were any documented consequences.
One of the negative impacts, according to Widders, is that the city would lose access to some housing related state grants. But council members noted that the city had never taken advantage of such grants during its years of compliance with housing mandates.
Though the council and community members were skeptical of whether local water purveyors could handle an influx of 426 new units, Widders and Figg confirmed that both Golden State Water and the Casitas Municipal Water District had certified water management plans that indicated they could provide water for Ojai residents at full build-out for the next 30 years.
Figg agreed that the data collected by both water companies could be interpreted differently. But as the state had, in the past year, approved water management plans for both Ojai’s primary water purveyors indicating the capacity to provide water for a potential 426 additional dwellings, it would be hard to argue the contrary.
Were the city to adopt the Housing Element proposed by Figg, some additional options could be a Split Home Program and an Amnesty Program.
The suggested Split Home Program would allow some large home owners on large units to split their homes into two units, to add to the unit count without additional development. The Amnesty Program would allow owners of illegal units to legalize their property with incentives.
Council members were divided in their comments but all were at least willing to look into not complying with the state’s mandates, after the legal ramifications had been thoroughly considered.
Councilwoman Rae Hanstad, Councilwoman Carol Smith and Councilman Steve Olsen said they were willing to try the Amnesty Program. Hanstad was concerned about the ability to maintain the local water quality. Smith was eager to move forward saying she was more concerned about protecting Ojai from being taken over by million dollar condominiums than water. Horgan was strictly against the Amnesty Program and clearly opposed to the Housing Element entirely.
“I’m just waiting anxiously to see what happens,” said Mayor Pro Tem Joe DeVito.
Council members agreed to wait until staff returned to them with more information on the legal ramifications of not having a certified Housing Element that accommodates 426 new units. The meeting concluded in celebration of community member Rose Boggs’ 80th birthday.
By Sondra Murphy
Celebrating 40 years of community service with budget cuts is not the way Help of Ojai’s executive director J.R. Jones wanted to start off the new year. Since last week’s announcement of the closure of Oak Tree House, the adult day activity facility at the West Santa Ana Street site, Jones has gotten a bit of good news.
An anonymous donation has been received toward paying rent on the Fox Street Community Assistance Program office and local churches are indicating support to use the site for at least another six months. Instead of moving C.A.P. to Santa Ana Street, as planned, Oak Tree House will remain open for the time being and continue services to its seniors and their caregivers. “The families were devastated by the closure,” said Jones. “This gives us a little reprieve.”
There are 14 people currently enrolled in Oak Tree House. The program runs four days a week to assist family caregivers in offering enriching activities for their loved ones. After meeting with families impacted by the decision to close the facility, Jones was happy to have more time to come up with a plan to keep the center open. “The response was overwhelmingly positive,” said Jones.
Bob Unruhe is one Ojai local who uses Oak Tree House two days a week for his wife, who is in her fifth year of Alzheimer’s. “The main benefit is she is one of a group of seniors, all of whom have similar problems, and I find she responds in group situations better than in one-on-one situations,” said Unruhe. He added that Help’s highly trained staff provides challenging activities, plus two snacks and lunch for $40 a day. “It’s a real bargain,” Unruhe said. “I understand they don’t turn anyone away for financial reasons.”
Jones said that they must re-examine OTH’s fees and may need to increase them in order to keep the center self-sustaining. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, work-wise,” Jones said. “It’s not like your average business where you go home at 5 and can forget about work for the night. I wake up at 3 a.m. worrying about the people using these programs.”
Jackie Curry takes her husband, Ken, to Oak Tree House four days a week and said she doesn’t know what she would do without the program. “My husband has dementia. He requires special care so it’s made a big difference in his life,” said Curry. “Before, he was just sitting around, sleeping a lot, drinking coffee and watching TV.”
Curry said the activities and socialization her husband receives are helpful on many levels. She said that Oak Tree House provides priceless time to take care of details or just unwind and focus on other concerns. This allows caregivers to avoid the burnout that often accompanies a round-the-clock charge. “It’s nice to do the laundry or mundane things, like go to the store, and not have in the back of my mind the worries about him,” said Curry.
“I’m dedicated to him. It’s my privilege to take care of him. He’s a wonderful husband. But he’s happier and more content after being with other people.”
Lois Recksiek lives with her granddaughter, Susan Shrum, and family. Recksiek goes to Oak Tree House one day a week. “She’s blind and on oxygen 24-7,” said Shrum. “It’s kind of interesting that they can accommodate her.” Shrum said that her grandmother takes the bus to Help and is met by staff to accompany Recksiek to the center. “Even though she’s blind, they include her in everything they do,” Shrum said. “When she comes home, her mood is improved. If they were to close this program, she would go downhill.”
Her grandmother’s time at the center allows Shrum to work full time as a nurse and attend to other tasks. “Today I went to the DMV and made cookies so my grandmother can have a treat when she gets home.”
“While the center may not seem to benefit many people, indirectly it does by impacting the caregivers,” said Unruhe. “I want to keep my wife home as long as possible and Oak Tree House is part of that plan. As far as moving the program out to the old Honor Farm, I feel that would be a mistake. This facility has a nice, warm, friendly environment and you can’t redesign a cell block to have a nice environment.”
Donna Spurgeon has used the center for her mother, Peggy Boyd. “It has given her so much stimulation in her life. It’s more than a program; it’s a loving, caring helpful program. They are, literally, my sanity,” said Spurgeon. “It’s more than a job for the girls. There is genuine love. I invite anyone to go by and see the love and caring and smiles on these people’s faces at the Oak Tree House. It’s what this whole world needs to be like.”
Curry was also enthusiastic about the staff of Oak Tree House. “We’re really blessed to have Barbara Mark and her staff, Emily and Patricia. You can’t believe the compassion they have.” Curry said that the education provided by Eleanor Land for caregivers has been a great coping mechanism for her. She feels that the challenges the agency faces will be conquered. “It’s going to bring everyone together,” said Curry.
Jones acknowledged the endeavor will not be easy. “Morale is very low,” he said. “People, like our ‘lunch bunch,’ are scared. I can’t tell you how much this means to the community.”
According to Jones, the organization receives just 20 percent of its funding from government sources. He said that Help plans an aggressive grant-writing campaign to try to remedy the situation, but that community support is imperative to keeping the nonprofit agency fiscally sound. Besides activities at Little House and Oak Tree House, Help runs local programs like C.A.P., hospice, home-delivered meals for homebound seniors, bereavement counseling for youth, and transportation through volunteer assistance which are funded primarily through individual and community donations.
“Our thinking is that people aren’t really aware of all the different programs we offer,” said Jones. He hopes that, if the community understands the impact Help of Ojai has on the community, it will inspire more people to donate to the organization.
For more information about donating to Help of Ojai, call 646-5122. Donations may be mailed to Help of Ojai, P.O. Box 621, Ojai, CA 93024. Donors may designate a specific program they wish to support.
Casitas board holds special meeting about invader species and threat to bass, boating
By Daryl Kelley
Despite the concerns of dozens of fishermen, Casitas Municipal Water District directors pledged Wednesday to do everything possible to protect the Ojai Valley’s drinking water supply, leaving open the possibility of closing Lake Casitas altogether.
At a special meeting called to address the urgency of the threat of lake infestation by a damaging mussel, fishermen packed board chambers to vow cooperation, but also to warn Casitas directors of the economic consequences of closing one of the nation’s top bass fisheries.
“When there’s talk that one of the best bass lakes in the country is going to potentially be shut down, you have everybody’s attention,” said Ron Cervenka, director of a series of bass tournaments set for the lake this year. “The economic impact of such a closure … would be devastating.”
After two hours of discussion, directors of the Oak View-based water district spoke with two minds — saying they don’t want to close the lake, but that their primary responsibility is to the 70,000 people in the Ojai Valley and Ventura who depend on their huge reservoir for water.
Director Bill Hicks said that the Ventura River watershed is the only area in Southern California that cannot count on imported water if local supplies are contaminated or run short,because this valley depends exclusively on rain to fill its reservoirs and groundwater basins.
“There’s got to be a solution to this,” Hicks said. “But until there is, we’ve got to be extremely careful. We’re not doing this to be jerks; we have to protect our water supply.”
The alien quagga mussel discovered in Lake Mead and Lake Havasu a year ago could ravage the reservoir’s ecosystem and clog its waterworks, much as it already has in the Great Lakes after migrating on ships from the Ukraine in the 1980s. The mussel, and its zebra mussel cousin, have caused billions of dollars worth of damage there.
And now it has spread from Lake Mead through the huge distribution system of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to seven lakes in San Diego and Riverside counties.
Metropolitan Water has begun a $5.6-million chlorination program to try to control the mussel spread, but officials said it is not clear whether the mussel can be controlled. Once in a lake, it cannot be eradicated since a single female can produce a million offspring a year, they said.
Although Lake Casitas is not tied to that larger regional system, local officials said the mussel could be spread by fishing boats that regularly go from lake to lake.
On Wednesday, the board vowed to continue to research alternatives to lake closure, including storing more boats at the lake for exclusive use there and purchase of a $300,000 boat-cleaning station. But directors made no promises about what might come when they discuss the issue again in early February.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of closing the lake, personally,” said Director Richard Handley. “But it’s really critical for us to make the right decision. Our primary responsibility is to the water users.”
Director Pete Kaiser said he wanted to focus first on educating the public about not bringing infected boats to the lake, inspecting boats to make sure they have no mussels hidden in their bilges and eradication of the mussel with hot-water cleaning stations.
“This is a problem that’s going to be with us for quite a while,” he said. He suggested that Casitas staffers continue to work with state Department of Fish and Game experts on how to control the spread of the pernicious quagga.
Board President Jim Word also stressed that cleaning stations might be set up and that boat storage yards could be expanded, while excluding boats from outside.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said, “but it may be a partial solution.”
A fifth board member, Russ Baggerly, who alerted the board to the quagga threat issue last fall, was at a water conference Wednesday. But he has previously raised the possibility of closing the lake to outside boats.
The message from fishermen Wednesday, however, was that they are not the problem.
“Make this decision based on information and facts rather than misinformation and hysteria,” Cervenka said. “It is not bass fishermen who are a serious threat … I can guarantee you, you are not going to find boats much cleaner than at bass fishing tournaments.”
State Fish and Game expert Mike Giusti also cautioned against closure. He praised the Casitas board for quickly addressing a serious issue, but he said a number of actions could be taken short of closure. The state is implementing a computerized tracking system, he said, so lake operators will know which boats have been in infested lakes.
In an emergency action last fall, Casitas had already implemented detailed inspections of all 26,000 boats that enter the lake each year.
Casitas staffers recommended that the issue be tabled until more research is done, citing a direct loss to the Casitas Recreation Area of $695,000 a year out of a budget of about $3 million. Hotels, restaurants and stores in the surrounding community would also take a hit, they said.
“It would be a serious public relations issue,” said Brian Roney, manager of the lake’s recreation area. “We’ve been flooded with phone calls.”
Several members of the audience urged the board to consider closing the lake before it’s too late.
Chuck Montag of Ojai said he fished Lake Casitas the first day it opened five decades ago and has taught his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren how to catch bass there.
“But it’s very important that we protect it,” he said. “If a catastrophe like this happens here, we don’t have any other water.”
Veteran Ventura fisherman Dennis Harper urged strong board action, citing the state of Oregon’s passivity in the face of a New Zealand mud snail infestation over the last two years. The snail has now spread to California and has been discovered in Piru Creek, he said.
“I personally would support a moratorium on access to the lake until you get a good handle on this,” said Harper, vice president of Sespe Fly Fishers.
However, Scott Sweet, vice president of California Bass Federation, said anglers are working overtime to educate those who fish at the lake to the threat of tiny “hitchhiking” mussels that hide in wet boats and among vegetation stuck to them.
He’s distributing stickers at tackle and boat shops saying, “Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers,” he said. Boat owners know to clean and dry their boats after use, he said.
“We’re really going to push this clean-and-dry (campaign),” he said. “That’s really the key. We as a fishing community are aware of this … We are educating everybody.”
Lake Casitas is a popular fishing spot because it produces such big fish, including a 22-pounder that was the second largest ever caught when it was taken in 1980.
Meanwhile, Casitas officials are continuing their campaign to enlist the support of state and federal officials in the fight against the invasive mussel, district general manager Steve Wickstrum said.
They’ve met with a variety of elected officials, who’ve offered to help, he said. But he said very little money is available to attack the problem.
Casitas has sought help from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees many western lakes and owns the Lake Casitas dam and reservoir, Wickstrum said. And he said he’s trying to get funds for decontamination units, hot-water sprays and chemicals, from the state.
For more information on the quagga mussel response, visit the DFG Web site at dfg.ca.gov/invasives/quaggamussel.
A public toll-free number, (866) 440-9530, has been established for boaters and anyone involved with activities on lakes and rivers seeking information on the mussels.
As reserves fill up, city manager eyes project priorities
By Daryl Kelley
Two years into his tenure as Ojai city manager, Jere Kersnar faces the pleasing prospect of telling his City Council bosses in 2008 that they need to start thinking about what they want to do with hundreds of thousands of extra dollars.
Make that $750,000 extra every year out of a city budget of nearly $8 million.
That’s about what the council has been stashing as an emergency reserve for each of the last three years. And after one more frugal budget cycle, they may actually have extra money to improve roads, police protection, recreation and other services basic to the lives of Ojai residents.
“That’s on my list to do this year,” Kersnar said. “As we reach our budget reserve targets, what will be our spending goals for that extra $750,000 after the end of 2008-2009?”
If all goes as expected, Kersnar said the city’s budget reserves will reach nearly $4 million by mid-2009, about half of its annual budget and a figure the council considers adequate to protect against emergencies.
Kersnar said he doesn’t think the housing slump will affect the city’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, and may not hurt it much next year, although some local cities are already planning cuts in their budgets in response to the downturn.
That’s partly because Ojai is a tourist mecca, so property taxes make up only 17 percent of the city’s revenue, with hotel taxes being nearly twice as much and sales taxes accounting for the same share as property levies. So as long as tourists continue to find Ojai a bucolic getaway, the city’s finances should be relatively sound, he said.
“We expect property taxes to still be fine this year,” he said. “What’s unclear is what effect the housing market will have on the next fiscal year (beginning July 1). Housing values are going down.”
But there’s a lag time from when houses lose value and when the county assessor reappraises them, lowering property taxes. So if the housing market stabilizes in the next year or so, there may not be much damage to city revenue, he said.
“If all this works out, by the end of ‘08-09 we’ll be where we ought to be with our reserves,” Kersnar said. “So we’re going to be asking, ‘OK, once you have the money, what do you want to work on?’ For so long, we’ve been in a reactive mode. Now we can push for a long-range plan. We’ve got all sorts of long-range plans to work on.”
Will the council decide to increase services in areas such as street repair, which already has an earmark of $400,000 this year and is awaiting a matching grant from a state bond? Should it add more to its budget for a new skate park, which received a pledge of $100,000 last year?
Or should it decide to set aside money for upgrading of the city’s recreational centerpiece, antiquated Libbey Bowl?
“Potentially, that could be the most costly,” Kersnar said. “The bowl is a big problem because that could potentially be a couple of million dollars. And that’s not counting the tennis courts. Our season kicks off in April with the Tennis Tournament. And we would like to have a Band-Aid (repair) at least by the start of the Music Festival in June.”
The council could also decide to hire a part-time code enforcement officer, which was rejected to save money in this year’s budget, to make sure residents are not converting garages illegally or storing vehicles, boats or throw-aways in their front yards.
A new city report looks at just how many homes have illegal dwellings in their back yards or garages, so this issue could become volatile this year.
The report identifies 309 illegal residences in the city.
“It raises the whole issue of amnesty,” he said. “Should we legalize some of these illegal residences and claim credit for them as new low-income housing? Or do we really want to reward those who broke the law by allowing these residences? Do we promote property owners’ willing participation to bring these residences up to standard, or do we punish them for violating the law? That will be a policy decision by the council.”
Indeed, housing is one of the top issues on the council’s agenda for the first half of this year.
The city must submit its new plan to provide all types of new housing to the state by June 30. This so-called Housing Element was recommended by the Planning Commission last year, but the council directed city planners to do more research before it signs off on a new five-year plan.
At issue is how the city can address a state-forced quota that requires the city to provide 433 new dwellings, despite a shortage of bare land and the traffic and smog problems that growth would bring to this narrow valley served by two-lane highways.
The council must also deal with a second benchmark plan within the first few months of 2008 — how to extend the life of its Redevelopment Agency.
Within the next three months, the council, acting as the city Redevelopment Agency board, must focus on how it can continue to refurbish the city’s core as the agency approaches a cap on how much it can collect in property taxes.
Since its founding in 1972, the Redevelopment Agency has captured about $18 million in property tax that would otherwise have gone to other government entities. But, with soaring property values during the last decade, the agency is now approaching a $23.2-million cap on how much it can collect.
That means that by 2012, the agency could be effectively out of the redevelopment business, and the city would be hard-pressed to find another source for the $1 million a year the agency collects.
A top redevelopment lawyer recently said the city might be able to extend Redevelopment Agency collections for a few more years. That’s because Ojai’s collections cap may apply only to its original redevelopment zone — its aging core — and not to two newer, smaller redevelopment zones for East and West Ojai Avenue and Bryant Street, the lawyer said.
“The other council focus in the first six months will be the skate park,” Kersnar said.
Last year, the council dedicated $100,000 to construction of a new skate park on school district property at Fox Street and Ojai Avenue. Supporters of the new park say it will cost $350,000, and they’ve set out to raise the extra money. But Kersnar said he’d always heard that $500,000 was a better estimate.
“That was probably for a more extensive park,” he said. “But I don’t know if they can get it done for $350,000.”
In any case, the council must also negotiate with Ojai Unified School District to extend the city’s lease for the park site, Kersnar said. The current lease expires in 2023 and the city wants another 20 years or so on top of that to justify construction.
“I’ve been reluctant to say the city should build it without the extension,” he said. “The facility could have a 40-year life. Concrete lasts that long.”
But the School District has hesitated to commit to an extension because it wants to leave its options open to possibly develop its current district headquarters site, of which the skate park is part, the city manager said.
Other city objectives for the new year include maintaining a drop in gang-related crime that occurred last year, and may be partly attributed to a new west Ventura County anti-gang unit, Kersnar said.
“Gang activity has been down,” Kersnar said. “We know the violence is down. It’s noticeable to me.”
A shooting of a 17-year-old boy near the skate park last weekend ended a long period without such violence, Sheriff’s Capt. Bruce Norris said.
“I’ve been bragging for quite a while that it’s been down,” said Norris, who functions as Ojai’s police chief. “We can’t say for sure yet that it’s gang-related, but that seems sensible.”
With a new city engineer, Glenn Hawks, the city is also ranking city streets for repair, based on how much they need the work and how much they’re traveled, Kersnar said.
Along with that, the city is studying whether neighborhood streets rarely traveled by anyone other than nearby residents should be maintained through a special tax on property owners in those neighborhoods. Other cities have implemented such tax districts, Kersnar said.
The city will also continue to join local residents to fight an increase in gravel trucks from the Lockwood Valley area and Santa Barbara County through the valley, he said.
“The concern is how to deal with these multi-jurisdictions,” he said, noting that Caltrans also has responsibility. It’s a difficult question.”
By Lenny Roberts
Investigators say they have no real leads in the Saturday evening shooting of a 17-year-old high school student in the 100 block of Fox Street. The victim was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant who left the scene in what witnesses said was a red or orange Dodge Charger or Avenger.
Ojai Police Chief Bruce Norris said Tuesday two .25-caliber shell casings were recovered on Ojai Avenue at the Fox Street intersection, indicating the shots were fired from the moving vehicle. According to investigators, at approximately 6:45 p.m. Saturday, deputies responded to a call of possible gunshots heard. Upon arrival, they contacted numerous witnesses who saw a scuffle in the street between two different groups of Hispanic males. One group of males got into a vehicle and fired three shots at the victim as they drove off, and the victim was struck once in the leg. The victim was then taken by friends to the Ventura County Medical Center, where he was treated and released.
Norris said Deputy Matthew Ogonowski was first to arrive at the scene, and reported seeing the suspect vehicle pass him as he turned onto Fox Street from Ojai Avenue. Norris added that Ogonowski got a look at the vehicle but didn’t know at the time that it was the suspect vehicle. His main concern, Norris explained, was to confirm that someone had been shot and provide immediate aid.
The suspect vehicle was last seen turning eastbound on Ojai Avenue.
Norris said there was a mix of people who heard noises and came out to see. “I believe OSL members were in the area but don’t know the extent of their involvment.” He added there is no reason to believe this shooting is related to the one last year on Drown Street.
Describing the suspect’s car as “a pretty distinctive vehicle,” Norris added that local officers and members of the county’s gang task force have been advised.
“A broadcast was put out right away,” Norris said. “We know what we’re looking for.”
Anyone with additional information about this crime is urged to call the Sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit at 477-7000.
The Rabobank in Oak View, formerly Mid-State Bank, was robbed at 1:41 p.m. Wednesday by a suspect described as a Hispanic male, approximately 16 to 20 years old, 5 feet, 5 inches tall with a thin build, 3-inch spiked hair, and a mole on his left cheek. The suspect left the bank, cash in hand, and was wearing a black hooded sweat shirt over a white T-shirt and white tennis shoes with black laces, according to police sources. A helicopter and K-9 Unit assisted Ojai-based sheriff’s deputies in the search. Anyone with information is urged to call the Ojai Police Department at 646-1414.
More information will be posted here as it becomes available.
Move designed to save $200,000 a year
By Sondra Murphy
In an effort to put its nonprofit organization on a firmer financial path, Help of Ojai has announced that it will temporarily close Oak Tree House, its adult day activity center. Help hopes the change will also help improve the delivery and quality of services offered to the community.
Because few people use the day activity center, executive director J.R. Jones is confident that families will be impacted as little as possible by bringing day clients over to Little House for activities.
“Our main concern here was the clients,” said Jones. “With 14 enrolled currently, I know we can integrate them, at least partly, at Little House.” With the day activity center suspended, Jones plans to move the Community Assistance Program offices to the Oak Tree House facility, eliminating the need to lease the Fox Street site for C.A.P.
“We’re looking at this as a temporary situation,” Jones said about day activities. Help plans to begin training volunteers for home visits so families that currently use Oak Tree House will have assistance available to allow caregivers time for necessary errands and appointments. Jones also hopes to re-establish an adult day activity center at its West Campus location some time in the near future.
“As difficult as these steps may be, Help no longer has the option of ‘business as usual,’” said Jones. “We have seen a steady decline in our cash reserve over the last two years and there are only two ways to reverse it. First, cut costs and, second, raise more money. We are dedicated to doing both.” The organization points to increased cost of food for its nutrition program and fuel for its transportation program as contributing to the financial challenges.
Jones said that the temporary closure and C.A.P. relocation will save the organization about $200,000 this year. Three full-time and two part-time administrative staff members will be laid off with the restructuring.
The changes will not completely solve Help’s financial struggles. The organization’s spending has exceeded its $1.5 million budget for over a year, and taking most of the reserves. Help plans to increase efforts to raise money and seek additional funding through government and foundation grants, in addition to launching a community awareness campaign to encourage greater individual giving.
“I imagine most people think Help of Ojai is government-funded, but, in fact, only approximately 20 percent of our funding comes from government sources.” Help services that benefit many in the valley — such as C.A.P., hospice, home-delivered meals for homebound seniors, bereavement counseling for youth and transportation — are primarily funded by individual and community donations.
Jones said that efforts will be made to make Help programs more self-sustaining and increase revenues from its Second Helpings Thrift Store.
“We have a serious challenge in raising the public’s understanding of how important Help of Ojai is to them,” said Jones. “People who know about Help and the services we provide are strong supporters, but too many valley residents are only dimly aware of what we do and how many people benefit from our services. We must correct that.”
In order to reopen an adult day activity center, an analysis will be made of the $45 per-day fee, as well as staffing and client-base issues. Jones is optimistic that the adult day activity center and other programs will be set up at the West Campus by the middle of this year. “The organization is only beginning to realize the potential of its new Baldwin Road facility,” said Jones. “We believe the potential benefits to the Ojai Valley there are huge.”
Jones is taking steps to reorganize the board or directors into two separate bodies. The first will be a governing board of seven to nine members and the second, an advisory board of up to 20 community representatives. The governing board responsibilities will include raising funds, while the advisory board is intended to work with Jones and staff to improve day-to-day operations and promote greater public awareness. “We think this arrangement will result in a stronger donation base in the community for the organization,” said Jones.
Meanwhile, Help will continue providing all 12 major programs and a variety of services to its elderly and special needs clientele and look to hire a new fund-raiser. “Help is the only resource available to many of the disadvantaged in the Ojai Valley and it’s our obligation to keep them going,” said Jones of the 40-year-old agency. “Making these economies will cause pain, I’m sure, but they are necessary if Help is to carry on its work.”
By Bret Bradigan
The “Early Bird Shopper” sculpture that welcomes people to the Arcade Plaza was reported stolen Wednesday atternoon. The whimsical 4-foot-high bronze sculpture of a Chumash bird woman by noted Ojai artist Sylvia Raz was valued at about $10,000.
Mark Johnson, report writer with the Ojai Police Department, said the loss was reported at 4 p.m. on Wednesday by Lawrence Ernest, owner of Plantasia Landscaping, which maintains the Arcade Plaza for the city.
The sculpture was installed in 2005. Raz explained the concept early bird, a shopping bird, sharply scanning the landscape, ready to engage in an emotional spree of adventure and discovery.
“The ethnic attire invited remembrances to our earlier natives, the gentle people that inhabitated this area in the past.”
The heavy sculpture was cleanly removed from its anchor rock, said Johnson. There were no eyewitnesses or suspects at this time.
Johnson encouraged anyone with any information on the theft to call the Ojai Police Department at 646-1414.
• The riverfront sections of the Baldwin Road former Honor Farm property will be used for depositing 2.1 million cubic yards of silt, which will be excavated during the Matilija Dam removal project and then transported by pipeline to the site.
The project, begun in 2001, is led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and coordinates federal, state, and local governments. The project’s goal is to return the Ventura River to its natural, free-flowing state by removing the dam and that requires moving the accumulated silt now filling the dam site.
• It was another marathon five-hour meeting before the Santa Barbara Planning Commission Wednesday in an attempt to clarify issues and make a final decision on the Troesh Diamond Rock Mine Conditional Use Permit.
An Ojai crowd of about 80 again filled the meeting room alongside residents of the Cuyama region to hear the Commission vote 4-to-1 in favor of approving the mine’s C.U.P. after attaching two new restrictive measures.
• With almost half of Ojai’s planning commissioners on their side, a handful of Ojai residents asked the city staff to broaden their recommended chain store ordinance to apply to all businesses within the entire city limits at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting.
• With the Diamond Rock Gravel Mine recently recommended for approval, the city of Ojai has finally decided to formally step in and get involved with the issue of gravel trucks traveling through the Ojai Valley.
At Tuesday night’s Ojai City Council meeting, city staff recommended that staff continue to monitor the Diamond Rock Mine project proposal and report back to the council on further action to be taken by the city, including possible legal procedures.
• Serious crime in Ojai continued at last year’s high level during the first half of 2007 as thefts and residential burglaries increased again, but criminal violence fell as felony assaults were down more than half, according to a new police report.
“The news is mixed,” city manager Jere Kersnar said Wednesday. “But I think there has been progress, because I worry most about (violent) crimes, and those are down.”
• A fourth traffic signal will be installed on Highway 33 in Mira Monte at the junction of Highway 33 and Villanova Road, next to Rite Aid.
•Debbie McConnell, executive director of Help of Ojai, is resigning to focus on maternal responsibilities.
• Victor Keith Stolz, 46, was found dead Thursday morning outside the Ojai Library.
• Larry Yuva, Ojai resident, founder of the Matilija Fly Fishing Club and husband of Mayor Carol Smith, went missing sometime around July 2 from his vacation home in Montana. Three days later he was found, hanging upside down in an overturned pickup.
• Help of Ojai has appointed a new executive director. J.R. Jones will take the helm of the local nonprofit agency from current director, Debbie McConnell, who earlier resigned.
• Confronted by dozens of farmers asking for relief, directors of the Casitas Municipal Water District instead imposed a 53 percent hike in the cost to irrigate crops.
• The scorching temperatures that for more than a week have turned Ojai into Blythe’s unofficial sister city have somewhat subsided, but only slightly. The highest point was reached Saturday afternoon at 109.6 degrees.
• Wilma Melville, founder of the Ojai-based National Disaster Search Dog Foundation accepted a $100,000 Purpose Prize award from the nonprofit group Civic Ventures.
• The West Campus expansion of Help of Ojai got the green light when the Ventura County Planning Commission approved the conditional use permit for its property by a 3-2 vote.
• Ojai received its first visit in recent memory from a legitimate presidential candidate Sunday afternoon when U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) came to town.
• After 10 years, Caryn Bosson is stepping down as executive director of Ojai Valley Youth Foundation.
• Despite a rare splash of September rain, the Ojai Valley experienced its driest year in recent history as a new rainfall season began this week. Indeed, precipitation for 2006-2007 may have matched the lowest ever.
• The eighth annual Ojai Film Festival had three packed theaters.
• About 20 protesters gathered at the “Y” intersection Thursday to express their indignation for President Bush’s veto of a bill to increase health care for low-income children.
• The Meiners Oaks County Water District has proposed rates that would increase the amount farmers pay to water their crops up to 500 percent or more.
• City staff finally brought forth an ordinance to protect Ojai from the proliferation of chain stores.
• Six suspected gang members were arrested after a month-long investigation.
• The Ojai City Council decided that maintaining a moderately diminished skate park was better than pouring money into a facility that would soon be replaced, and certainly better than having no park at all.
• Amid a deepening housing recession in Southern California, the Ojai area has experienced a sales rally thanks to a flurry of purchases of expensive homes in late summer and early fall, new data shows.
• Demolition of Matilija Dam and restoration of the Ventura River ecosystem received a huge boost this week when Congress overrode President Bush’s veto of a massive water projects bill.
• World-renowned physician and health care activist, Patch Adams, gained laughter and applause from an audience of more than 400 under the trees at Oak Grove School. Adams is traveling to “raise $1 million toward building a teaching center and clinic” on Gesundheit Institute’s 340 acres in West Virginia.
• The Ojai City Council finally accepted the first reading of a long-awaited ordinance to protect Ojai from the proliferation of chain stores.
• Two new gravel mine expansion applications have Ojai Valley advocates concerned about an increase in truck traffic.
• Julie Tumamait-Stenslie has been appointed to the California Native American Heritage Commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
• Caltrans officials offered an alternative to a proposed detour that would divert approximately 9,700 Highway 150 commuters onto a residential street for six months.
• Oaks Christian was simply too much for the Rangers to handle as they rolled to an easy 52-7 victory.
• Drought and rising water rates have ended an Ojai tradition. Boccali Farms will be eliminating its cut-your-own Christmas tree business.
• At the tail end of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the scheduled reorganization of council members took an unexpected turn when Councilwoman Sue Horgan asked if she could swap places with Councilman Joe DeVito and serve as mayor this year instead.
• Water rates for Ojai residents would increase 35 percent next year if the California Public Utilities Commission upholds new rates adopted this week by a state administrative law judge. Critics said the hike shows the system serves private business, not the public.
• Deborah Quinn, 58, died after a rush-hour traffic collision Tuesday just south of Oak View.
• The welcome rain that soaked the Ojai Valley on Dec. 18 arrived just as predicted, leaving Ojai with less than normal amounts since the recording period began Oct. 1, but nearly 40 percent of the total for the entire 2006-2007 season.
• Kurt Brown, 24, was killed Saturday evening when the borrowed motorcycle he was riding crashed on Rice Road.
Owners, zoning enforcement dispute need for conditional use permit for tasting room
By Sondra Murphy
Nestled behind Rancho Arnaz, Old Creek Ranch Winery has been in business since 1981. Current owners, John and Carmel Whitman, inherited half the business in 1996, then bought out family partners in 2000. The winery is now in the midst of a dispute with Ventura County. Contrary to published reports, the winery has not closed.
The primary disagreement centers on the county’s requiring the winery to obtain a conditional use permit for their popular wine tasting room. In a notice of violation dated Dec. 10, the Whitmans were informed they needed the permit in order to continue offering wine tasting to customers.
“Basically, it’s real simple,” said Stephen Alary of the county’s zoning enforcement division. “They have a wine tasting room without a conditional use permit.” Alary said Ventura County allows wine tasting rooms up to 2,000 square feet without a C.U.P., which is also required if the public uses a facility.
In addition to the tasting room, the notice of violation lists maintaining offsite advertising for a sign that has been in place since the facility opened. The Whitmans’ lawyer has filed an appeal with the Planning Division. Without an appeal, the Whitmans would have had until Jan. 9 to remain open by filing a C.U.P.
“We were told to give them a check for $4,000 to start the permitting process and we will be billed $158 per hour thereafter. At that point the process becomes open-ended,” said John Whitman. “I don’t want it to sound like sour grapes here, but the wine tasting room was pre-existing when we purchased the facility.” He does not agree that a C.U.P. is necessary for the winery to function within the law. “We have to file with the federal government and pay those taxes and fees,” he said.
The winery also pays state excise tax, Alcohol Beverage Control fees and needs a license to purchase the grapes used in their wine making. “When you receive your ABC license from the state of California, it says that you have the right to do tastings, the right to provide condiments and the right to sell pre-packaged food items not for consumption at the facility,” John Whitman said. According to Whitman, the county has told them to cease selling olive oils, hot sauces and garlic condiments, as well.
Old Creek Ranch Winery produces eight different types of wines, from chardonnays, rhones, and burgundies to Italian varieties. It was Carmel Whitman’s parents who started the winery and someone in the family has been running it since. They have historical documents to submit to the county with their appeal that show the facility was signed off by county inspectors when it was first created.
John Whitman feels that since the winery predates the C.U.P. regulation, they should be allowed to continue operations through the grandfather clause. “We’re a micro-winery,” he said. “We’re a small business. The situation is more analogous to an artist having a small studio, but we are in the art of wine making.”
After all the other taxes and fees, the Whitmans feel the extra fees required by the county are unreasonable. “The only advantage that a small winery like this has over bigger ones is to hand-tailor the wine. There are three wineries in Ventura County and they’re all going out of business,” said John Whitman. “This county should be stimulating these activities.”
The Whitmans hold special events and parties at the site and frequently host fund-raising events with no charge to the organizations. Recent benefits have included Ojai Humane Society, Ventura Music Festival, Ventura High School’s A.V.I.D. program and Ojai’s M.A.E.S.T.R.O. They are also business sponsors for the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.
“We were getting this down to a science,” said Carmel Whitman about the benefits. “For example, we had the A.V.I.D. event on a Saturday, then the M.A.E.S.T.R.O. event on Sunday, so they could share the cost of the tables. Because that was piggybacked, it made it easier for both groups to raise money.” She added that the Ojai Raptor Center has expressed interest in holding a benefit at the winery this spring and a Ventura teacher hopes to hold a retirement party at the end of the school year.
Besides the benefits to community groups the winery is able to offer, John Whitman pointed out that they do business with local companies, such as Ventura Rentals in Oak View, which may be impacted if the winery is forced to close. “If we’re breaking the law here, we’ll stop,” he said. “We have other options.” He said that Santa Barbara County has asked them to move their tasting room up there and a Paso Robles distributor has said they will take their wine.
“We’re trying to make it work for the community,” John Whitman said. “If not, we’ll make the wines here and sell them somewhere else.” But closing the Ventura County facility is not something the Whitmans want to do. “It’s a little jewel of a place here,” said John Whitman. “You sit out on our deck and look out over a cherry orchard.”
By Nao Braverman
Twelve remaining puppies transported from Taft to Ojai went up for adoption Saturday at the Humane Society of Ventura County. All 22 of the mixed breed pups were given vaccinations, implanted with micro chips for identification purposes, and spayed and neutered, said Jolene Hoffman, the Humane Society’s shelter director.
Ten of the playful pups were adopted Friday including a soft, shorthaired mutt with a black spot that covered one eye like a patch, Spud Mackenzie style. The mutt, assumed by Humane Society staff to be at least part American bulldog, attracted the attention of a number of prospective owners who saw its picture in the newspaper and called to inquire.
“He ended up going home with a really nice family,” said Hoffman.
Linda Hodges who drove the 22 puppies from Taft several weeks ago has already collected 40 new puppies in Taft who need homes. But the Humane Society can’t take in any of them, this time, until additional adoptions make room for them, said Hoffman. She explains that the reason Kern County has so many homeless puppies is that there is no nearby spay and neuter clinic, so most pets just keep having babies.
“Kern County needs a spay and neuter clinic really bad,” said Hoffman.” Many people can’t afford to pay the $130 to $200 it costs for the operation from a regular veterinarian, and most veterinary clinics are really far away.”
People blame the shelters that euthanize their animals, but they are not the real problem, said Hoffman. Most shelters don’t have the resources to take care of their animals so they really have no choice, she said.
The adoption process at the Humane Society of Ventura County is fairly simple. Adopters are asked for proof of ownership of their property, or the contact information of their landlord.
“Most animals are brought here because they have to move and their landlord doesn’t allow pets,” said Hoffman.
Humane Society officers also check out the adopting family’s yard to make sure it is adequate for the animal they are adopting.
There are other factors as well. Hoffman said that the Humane Society had recently seen a number of families who wanted to give a puppy to an elderly family member.
“We had to tell them that a puppy is just not the way to go,” she said. “We have a number of wonderful adult dogs which are much easier to care for.”
As gifts, a gift certificate always makes the most sense as it is important to match the adopter with the most appropriate pet, according to Hoffman.
Dogs are all neutered and vaccinated and cost $95 to adopt. The Humane Society is at 402 Bryant St. and the shelter is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m Monday through Saturday during the winter season.