Tucked against the jagged mountains of Ojai Valley lies a dusty campground with warped picnic tables and ragged barbecue pits. Red-feathered orioles sing and flutter among the ancient oak trees that grace the nearly deserted county park.
Camp Comfort has remained this way for some 20 years, its fraying edges offset by the beauty of its surroundings, but change is coming as the Ventura County Parks Department places the campground at the top of its cleanup list.
"We want to redo some of the barbecue areas, tables, grass areas and playgrounds and bring folks back to the parks," said department manager Andy O'Shita.
Cleanup efforts have paid off for the county's three beach parks, which are attracting more users, O'Shita said. Now the agency is turning its attention to its aging inland parks as a way to boost revenue through increased user fees, he said.
Improvements such as those planned at Camp Comfort are designed to attract more families, clubs and recreational vehicle users to the oldest of the county's 23 parks.
Unlike many county-run parks in California, those in Ventura County are nearly self-sufficient, surviving on camping, day use and leasing fees.
Since an independent "enterprise" model was introduced four years ago, the Parks Department has struggled to make ends meet, O'Shita said. Under the enterprise structure, an agency receives little or no funding from the county and is expected to become largely self-sufficient.
Camping fees, which range from $2 to $35 a night, make up 45% of the Parks Department's $3-million annual budget. Leases on the three county-owned golf courses and other sites generate 43%, and day-use fees ranging from $1 to $100 account for 12%, O'Shita said.
The department also receives about $300,000 from the county's general fund each year to operate six neighborhood parks in unincorporated areas. It expects to operate in the black for the first time next year, erasing its remaining $150,000 deficit.
"Parks are luxuries, unfortunately," said County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston, who ran the Parks Department for years. "They don't generate much revenue. We've done as much as we can to make them self-sufficient."
But Adrain Whitehead, who travels the county and state campground circuit with his wife, Juanita, in their recreational vehicle, said he thinks the county charges too much and that too many people drive in after hours without paying to camp and throw parties.
"If they had better supervision around here, they'd bring in more money," said Whitehead, who was staying at Foster Park in Ventura last week. Shaded by a canopy of live oaks along San Antonio Creek, the Camp Comfort site once served as a resting place for travelers on a buggy route from Ventura to Ojai, said county park ranger Drew Mashburn.
Long-neglected by the private operator that managed it until last year, Camp Comfort is being readied for new bathrooms, a shower house, sprinklers and grass in the main area and water, sanitation and upgraded electrical hookups at the campsites.
Even with those changes, not everyone will be happy.
"I wish the campsites were larger and there were hookups down by the creek," said camper Felicia Cadena, who was spending the weekend at Camp Comfort with her husband and four children in their 33-foot recreational vehicle.