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Ojai Law : The Tiny City's Fight Against Tiny Crime Creates a Model of Restrictiveness


Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indian-born sage and champion of the independent thinker, was already well on his way to becoming Ojai's patron saint when someone asked him about good government.

"There can be sanity," Krishnamurti answered on that day in 1948, "only when you spurn authority."

Before his death in 1986, Krishnamurti influenced millions with his talks on spirituality and built the town's reputation as a refuge for the creative and contemplative. But on at least one front, he was a failure.

Ojai these days is no place to spurn authority. City leaders, desperate to halt growth, beat back creeping glitz and protect their city's small-town, laid-back character, have transformed the place into a model of restrictiveness.

In their fight to keep Ojai Ojai, city officials have:

* Limited builders to a citywide total of 16 new homes per year, the strictest growth-control law among Ventura County's 10 cities, and among the strictest in the state.

* Barred homeowners from cutting down, or trimming, their oak and sycamore trees without a city permit. The City Council enacted an emergency ordinance on the subject in March of this year, after someone felled oak trees on private property and city leaders realized they couldn't punish him.

* Turned away fast-food restaurants. Their drive-through windows conflict with architectural review standards updated by the city in 1981.

* Dictated where homeowners can place their satellite dishes. That ordinance, passed in 1986, was one of the first such municipal laws in the nation. It is described by City Atty. Monte L. Widders as "one of the most restrictive" as well.

* Restricted business signs in size, number, material and placement. Those restrictions, laid down in 1956 and tightened in 1981, are among the oldest and most exacting in the state. Come November, all of Ojai's businesses will be bound by them.

When merchants complain of skateboarders on downtown sidewalks, sheriff's deputies respond. When a local charity wants to advertise its barbecue with a banner over Ojai Avenue, the Planning Commission has to OK it first. And when a new restaurant splashes some purple paint on its outside wall--as one did this summer--redevelopment officials protest.

For more than a decade, Ojai has been fighting off growth and straining to maintain its character. But can Ojai win those battles without undercutting its own storied creative spirit? For many, that's an increasingly thorny question.

Ojai's civic atmosphere is "somewhere between Utopia and Stepford Village," said Jeanette O'Connor, former executive director of the Ojai Festival.

"You don't have to worry about surviving , so your time and your energies are freed up to pursue artistic activities. . . . That's definitely a positive aspect," she said. But, O'Connor continued, "one of the problems there was having a community that concentrates on a certain level of sameness and coherence. . . . It has become a little flat, a little boring."

City leaders, not surprisingly, take issue with that.

"Ojai looks better today than it did 10 years ago," said Planning Commissioner David Hirschberg.

William Hattabaugh, a member of the city Redevelopment Committee, said, "We've tried to make Ojai an identifiable town and keep it that way. The real issue is, how far from a theme can you deviate and still maintain the character of the town? And frankly, we haven't come up with an answer yet."

Ojai only has this much time to worry about character and aesthetics, all sides agree, because it has relatively few other things to worry about. No rotting inner city, for instance, no topless bars, no murders since Ronald Reagan's first term.

Yes, new houses keep going up in the unincorporated areas surrounding the city. Heavy traffic does slow Ojai Avenue down. And air pollution does gather from surrounding cities and hang above the town, trapped between the mountains.

But with the City Council aiming to limit growth to 1% every two years, Ojai's population still falls short of 8,000. They are a peaceful people, gathering for chats at the old post office, biking past the educational and spiritual retreats clustered around the town, retreating from Ojai Avenue each weekend when the tourists descend.

The city began to grow a little over a century ago, when promoters first pitched the Ojai Valley as a resort with mysterious curative powers. The town was called Nordhoff then, and the Nordhoff Hotel stood amid orange and lemon orchards. In 1898, the Ventura River and Ojai Valley Railroad came through. In 1917, glass millionaire Edward D. Libbey had the arcade built and the post office tower erected, and the town renamed itself Ojai, a word derived from the language of the Chumash Indians.

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