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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS

Big Decisions Ahead for Ojai Winners

November 02, 2000|GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OJAI — Two candidates backed by this city's influential environmental lobby and a third who says he is looking out for the average citizen will vie for two City Council seats up for grabs Tuesday.

Incumbent Sue Horgan and challenger Rae Hanstad have the support of environmentalists, the city's political establishment and the Chamber of Commerce, largely because both are in sync with what many in Ojai hold dear: preserving the town's rustic setting and sense of being an artistic enclave while holding down growth.

The third candidate is auto mechanic Bruce Roland, who says he wants to maintain Ojai's semirural atmosphere but also holds strong views on property rights and growth that set him at odds with the established guard.

The candidates' contrasting viewpoints suggest how each would react to significant decisions that lie ahead. The winners will weigh in on a pair of controversial decisions before the end of the year, each with the potential to significantly alter this small, environmentally conscious town.

In late November the council will vote on whether to allow a high-priced condominium complex in the heart of town. Proponents say the Los Arboles project would spare open space from development, bring a rundown urban block back to life and allow residents to walk to nearby shops, cutting down on traffic.

But opponents say the densely packed condos would overwhelm the neighborhood, look ugly from neighboring Libbey Park and cater to rich people who would continue to use their cars.

On the heels of that vote, the council will face the symbolic gesture of considering whether to approve a greenbelt agreement with the county. It would formalize a long-standing handshake understanding between the city and the county to keep land that fringes the Ojai Valley in agriculture.

Specifics of the proposed greenbelt are still under discussion, but the greenbelt could reach from Lake Casitas in the west to Dennison Grade in the east, and in the north from Los Padres National Forest south to Sulphur Mountain.

Horgan and Hanstad both support a greenbelt and are taking a wait-and-see attitude on the proposed condos. Roland is against a greenbelt, saying it represents nothing more than an added layer of bureaucracy. He is concerned it would mean property owners would lose control over their land.

But he supports the proposed Los Arboles project, which he said is a better alternative than developing open space on the outskirts of town. Roland, however, said he would prefer the project include housing affordable to working-class families.

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Roland, 47, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1994, said the project's opposition comes from a vocal minority of environmental groups whose members turn out in droves at public meetings. He wants a seat on the council to represent what he describes as Ojai's silent, working class.

"Who's the community?" Roland asked. "The people [at City Council meetings] or the people home watching the All-Star game?"

Horgan, 45, who was appointed to the council in November 1999 when former Mayor Ellen Hall moved to Australia, said the proposed greenbelt would be redundant because it would merely put an official stamp of approval on an agreement already in place. She would vote for it anyway, she said, to emphasize the importance of the town's rural buffer.

"It sends a clear signal that we mean what we said in our General Plan," she said, referring to the document that outlines growth plans for the city.

She wants to hear public comments on the Los Arboles project before she draws any conclusions, but said in broad terms the project is what the city should have in place. The project, she said, reuses the amount of blighted land, and because it has home offices built into many of the condos, would mean less traffic on Ojai's crowded streets.

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Hanstad, 49, said the greenbelt would be a natural move for Ojai and believes the City Council should take the lead on the issue.

"Planning for a greenbelt is a necessity as opposed to just hoping it will happen," she said.

Hanstad said the South Montgomery Street land, where Los Arboles is proposed, is a sensitive site both politically and environmentally because it is next to Libbey Park. She wants to determine whether light would spill into the park and how much air pollution Los Arboles would contribute.

Hanstad, who said she was asked to run for the council by several prominent citizens, says air quality is the valley's main environmental concern. She wants to step up monitoring of Ojai's ozone levels and get more cars off the road. She and Horgan sit on a task force set to examine how the city can work with the school district to ease traffic congestion.

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