A Santa Barbara real estate broker bought the historic Matilija Hot Springs for $400,000 at a county auction this week, but a Ventura County planner says zoning regulations may make it difficult for him to establish the New Age education center he envisions.
"It sounds like he's got a serious problem in terms of zoning," said supervising planner Robert Laughlin, when told about Brooks Barton's plans. Laughlin said that Matilija is zoned for open space and that such zoning does not permit schools.
Barton, however, said he did not see zoning as a major obstacle. "We anticipate we'll have to work closely with the county," he said. "We'll be very patient and sensitive to the need of the county and the people of Ojai."
This is the second time in eight months that Ventura County has auctioned off Matilija, the historic sulfur springs resort outside Ojai.
In March, the 9.5-acre property was sold to a Malibu designer for $546,000. The deal collapsed when the buyer discovered that county building codes would make it difficult and costly to convert the rustic resort into a "world-class health spa."
While open-space regulations would prohibit construction of a spa or resort, Laughlin said those plans would not have required new zoning because of the long-established spa on the
Barton, who is a vice president of a New York-based real estate firm called Previews but says he is acting on his own behalf, submitted the only bid at Tuesday's auction. The county's minimum bid was $300,000.
Although he called his plans flexible, Barton said he would like to open a school at Matilija that would offer seminars on everything from family mediation and modern dance to corporate sales strategies that incorporate New Age techniques. The seminars might attract 20 to 100 people, and participants would not be housed at the spa site overnight, Barton said.
Barton said he was drawn to Matilija because "it's a very special piece of property and it's got a lot of interesting energy."
The real estate broker described himself as a friend of the Theosophical Society, the Ojai institution based upon the teachings of the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, and says he wants to enhance the Ojai Valley's "long history of alternative education."
Still, Laughlin predicts that Barton will face an uphill battle with county ordinances and will have to obtain special permits from the county planning commission before moving forward. He said that a proposal to allow certain types of conference centers on land zoned for open space is under study.
Barton has vowed to work closely with county officials and Ojai residents to build his alternative school in a sensitive fashion.
"I hope to become a favorite son of Ventura County," he said.
Previews is a subsidiary of Coldwell Banker & Co., which is owned by Sears, Roebuck & Co. Previews sells pricey and unusual properties. Barton has handled the sale of Johnny Carson's $8.6-million Malibu house, the $1.4-million lease of a South Seas atoll off Tahiti for Marlon Brando and the $10-million sale of entertainer Rudy Vallee's house.
Ventura County purchased Matilija in 1947 for flood-control purposes and began leasing the property to private operators in the 1960s, after it determined that the land was not needed for Matilija Dam. The county decided to sell Matilija and invest the proceeds in its other larger parks after the lessee, Bill Olivas, fell $50,000 behind on rent.
One legend has it that an Indian chief named Matilija who led a rebellion against Spanish troops stationed at the San Buenaventura Mission lies buried above the mineral baths, at a site marked by a white cross.