Jan. 24, 2013Tiobe Barron, OVN correspondent
Amid objections from area residents Ojai officials are wrestling with how to implement a state-mandated Housing Element to its General Plan.
The state requires each city to show it could accommodate its fair share of affordable housing units. If necessary, the cities must rezone portions of their communities to somehow accommodate the additional units.
The state has decided Ojai should be responsible for 433 affordable housing units during the 2006 to 2014 housing cycle. According to state estimates, it is 177 units shy of that goal.
Additionally, the state mandates that cities may not prohibit three-story buildings as a blanket rule, fearing such restrictions could stymie development.
“We are now in the stage of putting meat on the bones, of crafting ordinances to support the policy you adopted,” explained consultant Thomas Figg, during a presentation at Tuesday night’s Ojai City Council meeting. “Let’s talk about community context, because this has always been a recurring theme — the thought that 20 units per acre is going to translate into a change in the fabric of the community. The reality is that you already have some 20-odd properties that are 20 units per acre or more. So it isn’t as if the community does not already have high-density development.”
At this last statement, Councilwoman Betsy Clapp told Figg to keep his opinions to himself.
Clapp gave a presentation of her own, showing slides of locations around the city from which the Topa Topa Mountains are currently visible, but that could potentially be blocked by three-story structures.
“If that (zoning change) occurs, we can’t say ‘no’ (to three-story development). Oh, sure we can ‘design it differently.’ We can put lipstick on a pig,” said Clapp. “Don’t fool yourself. And don’t patronize us with that crap. The reality is it would destroy our community, destroy our way of life, destroy our economy.”
Many Ojai residents echoed similar concerns.
“This is a threat to our fragile fiscal and physical environment,” said Chamber of Commerce CEO Scott Eicher, citing a negative impact on traffic, density and views in the tourism-driven Ojai Valley. “The state has looted our coffers for years, borrowing property taxes, borrowing gas taxes, taking vehicle licensing fees and recently eliminating the redevelopment agencies, creating even more financial turmoil. I urge Council to send city manager Rob Clark to Sacramento to tell the state to amend the Housing Element so it does not include provisions for three stories.”
“Ojai is a really, really, really, really special place. I know that goes without saying, but I think we need to be really careful about what we do in response to what the state is mandating,” agreed Ojai resident Tom Francis. “People come here from all over the world, and they come for a reason. We should look at bioregional capacity. Maybe it’s time to do updated traffic, air quality studies before we begin rezoning. I want you to tell Sacramento what they can do with their one-size-fits-all housing programs.”
Citizens were not alone in wanting to scrap the adopted Housing Element, or make drastic alterations.
“What do we want for our town? Do we want to continue to submit to Draconian measures of the state?” queried Clapp. “Are we going to say, ‘Oh, we were just doing our job?’ I’ve heard that somewhere before. I think people who were leading people into the gas chambers said that.”
“Oh Jesus, stop it Betsy,” interjected Councilwoman Carol Smith. “When I first moved here, my house was $35,000. How do people afford it now? They don’t! We want young families here. We don’t want to exclude them. I just don’t see how that will ruin our community.”
But others voiced worry that a rapid increase in development would do precisely that.
“I was born in Hueneme. When I was a kid, it was a cool town to live in, like something from ‘Little Rascals.’ Then in the late ‘60s it underwent urban renewal,” said Ojai resident Alan Thornhill. “They basically tore it down and rebuilt. And at their city council meetings, there seems to be the sentiment that it’s no longer a cohesive neighborhood, it’s lost that sense of village. … It could happen here, too.”
Mayor Paul Blatz related to Thornhill’s anecdote.
“Although I’ve lived in Ojai for 30 years, I grew up in a town one-third the size of Ojai, in Connecticut. The governing body there was called the town council. Sometimes I think we should be called that,” mused Blatz. “We are truly blessed to live in Ojai. And we are blessed because the leaders in the past have seen how important it is to maintain our unique, small-town character. … Let the message be heard loud and clear that we, as citizens of Ojai, will not accept anything less than what we believe is in the best interests of preserving our city.”
Councilwoman Carlon Strobel reminded those present that the Housing Element has already been adopted for the 2006 to 2014 period, and thus, the focus should be taken off of amending or retracting this Element, and geared toward the 2014 to 2021 Housing Element, which is due in October this year.
“I would like to find a way to create exemptions for small towns, whether based on geographical size or constraints,” said Strobel, who suggested teaming up with like-minded small communities in approaching the state’s next Housing Element.
Newly appointed Councilman Severo Lara worried that the state’s requirement to not create a blanket ban on three-story development could place the city in a no-win situation — that it would face litigation from the state if the Housing Element is abandoned or by developers should the city refuse three-story projects.
“We can look at it on a project-by-project basis,” city attorney Joseph Fletcher assured the Council. “All we need to do is write an ordinance that can achieve our share of the housing mandate in a fashion that is compatible with this community. I think it can be done. We do have a schedule, but the most important thing is to take the time to do it right, to come up with something that reflects the community’s needs. I think we can do both, I think it’s possible.”
Fletcher suggested, as possible alternatives to a blanket ban on three-story buildings, limiting building height or rooflines, reiterating that it was best to play along with state mandates, as the Council is a “subdivision of the state. We are not an autonomous government entity.”
“In implementation, like anything else, the devil is in the details, and that’s what we need to focus our attention on,” summed up Blatz.
Council voted to hold a joint meeting with the Ojai Planning Commission Feb. 20 to discuss those details, such as potential site designation for affordable housing projects.
Visit www.ci.ojai.ca.us to view previous meetings or read agendas for upcoming meetings.