Ventura County officials next month will consider easing some of the restrictions that have barred most development on land set aside as open space.
That reassessment has been prompted by a Japanese broadcasting tycoon's two-year-old plan to build an exclusive golf course and executive retreat near Ojai.
County supervisors last year rejected Kagehisa Toyama's proposal as inappropriate for the scenic 230-acre open-space site, but later agreed to consider zoning revisions that might allow it.
Meanwhile, Toyama, the owner of Tokyo's biggest radio station, has purchased an additional 1,500 acres of open land surrounding the site that would both lessen the development's environmental impact and insulate guests, his attorney said.
"He wants a buffer around him to assure that there is absolutely no disruption, visually or otherwise, that would intrude on the natural setting of his dream golf course," said attorney Allen F. Camp of Thousand Oaks.
"Everything that Ojai stands for and fights for is what Mr. Toyama wants to see preserved as well," he said.
Such assurances have not won over environmentalists and some county officials, who fear that allowing the development for Toyama could lead the way to development of other pristine lands.
"I don't think you can have a sort-of-open space or a kind-of-open space or a maybe-open space," Supervisor Susan Lacey said. "If you start hedging on that, you start losing the concept."
Open-space zoning now forbids virtually all development, but does not specifically address ideas such as Toyama's, which can not be accurately labeled as a hotel or convention facility.
A report aimed at defining what levels of development might be acceptable in an open-space zone is being drafted by county staff and will be ready for the board by its June 14 meeting.
"We're trying to develop certain development standards that would allow this type of conference center to be placed in open space," said James Caruso, the county's associate planner. "At what level, at what intensity, we're not sure yet."
Critics of the project, which features a 50,000-square-foot meeting room and 25 two-unit bungalows, argue that any development on land zoned as open space is too much.
"Once you start breaking your open-space policy for one project, you might as well take all your open space and say, 'We've lost it all,' " Ojai Councilman Frank McDevitt said.
'Zoning for Dollars'
"This is entirely improper and ill-conceived," said Russ Baggerly of Meiners Oaks, a leader of the Ventura County Environmental Coalition. "It's best described as zoning for dollars."
Camp, however, said that the club is intended for only a select group of international businessmen whose presence would go virtually undetected in the community.
On any given day, he said, an average of 20 to 25 golfers might be using the retreat, which would be built on an isolated portion of the former Rancho Matilija, west of the Ventura River and north of California 150.
Besides a world-class golf course, the grounds also would feature a swimming pool, tennis courts and a riding stable.
"You're talking about a facility that hardly has any people," Camp said. "The whole program that Toyama envisions is an open-space use."
County planners said their study probably will allow for some well-managed, unobtrusive development in open-space areas but were not sure it would allow for all Toyama was asking.
"We will be able to come up with something that is rational and in compliance," Caruso said. "The only unknown is whether the restrictions will be something that this particular project will be able to live with."