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Ojai Trust Seeks to Preserve Ranch

Land conservancy plans to raise $4 million to buy more than 1,400 acres along the Ventura River. Sale would likely kill prospects for a proposed golf course.

October 15, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

An Ojai land-preservation group announced plans Monday to acquire a 2 1/2-square-mile swath of oak-studded meadows and chaparral-covered hills--a century-old ranch that is the largest private landholding in the Ojai Valley.

The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy plans to raise $4 million to purchase the land from the Intell Management and Investment Co., a New York firm that has owned it for two years.

"As far as we know, it would be the largest purchase of open space in Ventura County by a land trust," said Jim Engel, the conservancy's executive director.

Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, whose district includes Ojai, said the pending purchase "really launches us on the road to protecting the entire Ventura River watershed."

Straddling three miles of the Ventura River just north of California 150, the land is home to roadrunners and quail, bobcats and black bears. Eventually, its new owners hope, some 12 miles of hiking and equestrian trails will meander through the sprawling old ranch that original owner W.I. Rice called El Nido (the nest).

Engel said the purchase would effectively end the prospect of a golf course on the property. That possibility has been bitterly fought by environmental activists since 1987, when Japanese media tycoon Kagehisa Toyama unveiled plans for the elite private Farmont golf course on 200 of the ranch's 2,000 acres.

Plans for a golf course were revived earlier this year by Intell, which invests in properties as diverse as an entertainment complex in New York City's Times Square and Enron's former headquarters in Houston.

However, those plans were suspended after county officials demanded additional environmental studies, said Lindsay Nielson, a Ventura attorney who represents Intell.

"Having spent close to $600,000 on a prior environmental impact report, there was little appetite for spending an additional $100,000 on water studies," Nielson said, adding that the golf course idea is "not completely dead, but on life support."

Under an agreement with Intell, the conservancy would own 1,416 acres and hold a conservation easement barring development on an additional 150 acres.

Intell would retain two home sites on the property and is in negotiations to sell the remaining 400 acres, which includes the original golf course site, Nielson said. The prospective buyer's identity and plans for the land have not been disclosed.

The area to be preserved spans rolling terrain between the Ventura River and Los Padres National Forest. It includes a 48-acre orange grove and grazing land for about 100 head of cattle. Whether those uses will continue has yet to be decided, Engel said.

A one-lane asphalt road runs a mile and a half through the property for crews servicing a canal between the river and Lake Casitas. Aside from that and an incongruous line of telephone poles, the land looks rough-and-ready, with game trails lacing through the sage and yucca.

"From an ecological standpoint, it's really what the rest of the valley was 100 years ago," Engel said.

Funding for the purchase will likely come from the state's Coastal Conservancy and private donations.

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