July 11, 2013
Tiobe Barron, OVN correspondent
The Ojai City Council and the Ojai Planning Commission met Monday to discuss the upcoming 2014-2021 Housing Element. The State-mandated document details how Ojai will accommodate its “fair share” of California’s population growth, and must be submitted by Feb. 12, 2014.
For the recently-completed Housing Element — the 2008-2014 version — Ojai had to prove it has the capacity for 433 new housing units. For this latest cycle, Ojai’s allotment from the state is 371 new units.
As it was with the 2008-2014 cycle, no units need actually be built; however, the city must prove, via different housing programs, that it has the ability to build if the need arises. In order to meet the state’s deadline, the Council hired housing consultant John Douglas, AICP.
“We have John Douglas here; John has a tremendous amount of experience with housing element consultant work for other communities, including communities in Southern California and Ventura County,” said Community Development Director Rob Mullane. “I think he will serve the community very well in this capacity.”
“It’s really a special pleasure for planners to work with communities who really care about their community,” said Douglas. “I’m very much looking forward to this, and I’m very optimistic about the outcome.”
Douglas then requested that the Council and Commission members elucidate their fundamental values in moving forward on this Housing Element.
“As far as interests that I see that we need to have in our Housing Element, we need to preserve our small-town character. And that includes height limits,” offered Mayor Paul Blatz. “We are also extremely concerned with preserving our natural resources, principally our water.”
As part of the recently-completed Housing Element, Council had to designate properties for a special zoning overlay allowing the property owner to build affordable housing units. The state requires that projects under this designation not be restricted to two stories — something to which both Council and community members have voiced objections in the past.
“I’m a little frustrated that we’re doing this again, when we just finished one,” said Planning Commissioner Paul Crabtree. “Even during that, there was frustration that we were doing that, instead of the real planning that we wanted to do. I know we need to do this. I’m looking at all these meetings (scheduled to complete and review the Housing Element) and wondering if we could capture something we really want to do while we’re doing these other meetings.”
“Ojai is the second-poorest city in Ventura County,” contributed Councilwoman Betsy Clapp.
Clapp noted concern over the state’s definition of “very low income” households eligible for affordable housing, calling their numbers “laughable.” Additionally, she queried whether the state is adequately informed of the physical and economic constraints unique to this town.
“Regarding the three-story issue, (it) has the impact of not only damaging the feel of the community, but it also damages the local economy,” said Clapp. “They (tourists) come here for relief from the urbanization of the rest of the state.”
As the city of Ojai is not legally able to restrict the number of stories on applicable projects, Council members considered the idea of a height restriction of 25 feet for all new construction. While most gathered expressed a desire to protect the valley views, some felt the restriction appeared stifling.
“When I think about the city as a whole, I’d really like Ojai to remain a real dynamic, vibrant place that is able to evolve over time. A lot of the discussion I’m hearing tonight really disturbs me, because I see us sort of putting a lot of constraints on what can happen in the future,” said Commissioner John Mirk. “I’d like to keep our options fairly flexible at this point. So I’m pretty much opposed to changing our height limits.”
For yet others, affordability and accurate demographic information remain the vital issues.
“Why even have the demographic data, when my understanding is that really we’re not applying it to this cycle, but to the next cycle?” asked Councilman Severo Lara. “It seems like ‘affordability’ isn’t really capturing the real definition of what it’s supposed to. It seems like ‘affordability’ is more ‘market value,’ the way the state is putting it.”
“As a realtor, I have people coming into my office every day looking for low-income housing,” said Ojai resident Dale Hanson. “What they call ‘low-income housing’ on some of the Housing Element figures I’ve seen is really not low-income housing. And these are decent people, they’re not rag tag people.”
Mayor Pro Tem Carlon Strobel expressed concern that the statistics — compiled by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and utilized by the California Department of Housing and Community Development to determine Ojai’s requisite numbers — is out-of-date and inaccurate altogether, and perhaps should be corrected prior to adjusting Ojai’s zoning codes.
“When SCAG compiles their report specific for Ojai, is that just taking a percentage of 10 cities plus the county area and applying that to Ojai, or is it actually specific to Ojai?” asked Strobel. “SCAG is going to use that information to determine Regional Housing Needs Assessment numbers for Ojai. So what I’d like to know is, if, for Ojai, our four-and-a-half square miles, are we dealing with accurate information? And if not, what can we do about it?’
Douglas and Mullane both emphasized the importance of city staff working with the group to ensure accurate information, while city manager Rob Clark cautioned that change through the group would come about incrementally.
The next step in the Housing Element process is a public discussion via the Planning Commission. Visit www.ci.ojai.ca.us for specific meeting dates and to view pertinent Housing Element documents.