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Ventura County

Environmental Group No Longer a Natural

Citizens to Preserve the Ojai's loss of a ballot measure last week may reflect a dislike of its evolving tactics, including litigation.

November 11, 2002|Gail Davis | Special to The Times

A pioneering Ojai Valley environmental group, widely respected as a protector of all things naturally Ojai, has alienated many residents with positions even some longtime supporters say are extreme.

Last week, Ojai voters defeated by nearly 2 to 1 a ballot measure sponsored by the group -- Citizens to Preserve the Ojai -- that city leaders said would have brought growth to a virtual halt.

Ojai, a city of 7,800 residents, is already the slowest-growing city in growth-conscious Ventura County, increasing its population just 0.3% a year in the 1990s.

The citizens group has also incurred the wrath of the City Council by filing lawsuits that have cost taxpayers more than $150,000 to defend in the last two years, according to City Manager Dan Singer.

One suit recently blocked construction of a 26-unit upscale condominium project intended to replace 33 dilapidated houses that made up the city's only slum.

Mayor Steve Olsen said Citizens to Preserve the Ojai has not accurately taken the community's pulse in four or five years.

"Everyone will agree that the CPO is a necessary organization," Olsen said. "But they've chosen to make personal attacks and alienate themselves from the process. That needs to change."

But Ivor Benci-Woodward, president of the citizens group, said it is as vital and necessary today as ever, especially since the current crop of city officials seem more accommodating to developers.

"I don't think to the man and woman on the street that what the CPO is doing is [extreme]," he said. "I think it is beyond what the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce and the power structures want."

Even the 35% approval of the group's ballot Measure C on Tuesday can be seen as proof that residents value the organization's role, he said. The measure would have forbidden city approval of new projects if they added significantly more traffic on surroundings streets.

"We won anyway," Benci-Woodward said, "because traffic really was the No. 1 issue of the campaign for all the candidates."

Results of the City Council race, however, may indicate a gulf between the citizens group and voters.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Measure C, which was opposed by the council. And they reelected Councilmen David Bury and Joe DeVito.

A third council seat now held by Olsen, who is retiring, remains undecided. Bruce Roland, who opposed Measure C, is trailing Carol B. Smith, who supported it, by only 10 votes.

Benci-Woodward said that despite the election results, his group is determined to challenge the city's decisions in court when it does not follow its own legally binding growth plans.

And he said he is optimistic that a public forum Thursday on traffic problems will start to solve issues raised by Measure C.

Yet the group, which in the '70s and '80s brought together environmentally conscious residents, may have pushed too far this time, some say.

Former mayor Nina Shelley, who led opponents of the Weldon Canyon garbage dump site in the 1990s, said the organization should end its adversarial tactics.

"I don't have any bitterness toward special interest groups or the CPO; I respect them," Shelley said. "But to always be challenging as if they have the same power as the City Council is a gross miscalculation."

Membership rolls for Ojai's environmental groups could also indicate disapproval of the group. In its heyday, membership swelled to more than 900, said Patricia Weinberger, who founded it about 30 years ago. She has not been a member since the 1980s.

Benci-Woodward said today the group has about 350 members and the recent campaign drew 10 to 15 new ones.

Meanwhile, the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, founded 15 years ago, has grown from 350 members to about 1,100 in the last five years, said Executive Director Jim Engel.

"The land conservancy is the only viable environmental organization where people can focus their concerns," said Weinberger, a conservancy member.

The two groups have different goals. The citizens group focuses on political activism, and the conservancy deals exclusively with land stewardship.

Weinberger said the conservancy satisfies a need once fulfilled by Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, offering educational programs and nature walks to the public.

Russ Baggerly, a longtime member of the citizens group and president of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County, said the former still serves an important watchdog role.

Baggerly said the Ojai City Council sometimes breaks state environmental law and its own rules when considering new development proposals. So it has to be forced to follow the law, he said.

"If they don't do it," he said, "you try to do it yourself."

A good example of how the city now favors builders, he said, is the 26-unit Los Arboles condo project next to Libbey Park.

A Superior Court judge recently struck down city approval because officials had allowed the new condos to be built too close together.

"They want to approve that [project] so badly, they're willing to change the intent of many years of planning," Baggerly said. "Their arrogance seems to have no limits."

Even critics don't want Citizens to Preserve the Ojai to roll over and go away.

The group could once again mobilize public opinion, Weinberger said, if it adopts a gentler approach.

"That's where salesmanship and instruction come in," she said. "All these people seem to know is how to litigate."

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