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Ruling Halts Work on Ojai Housing

Judge finds 23-unit, luxury condominium project violates municipal growth plan. City official says problem 'can be fixed.'

October 18, 2002|Gail Davis | Special to The Times

Construction on a luxury condominium project in downtown Ojai has ground to a halt after a judge found it violated the city's overall plan for growth.

The 23-unit Los Arboles Townhomes, planned for three acres next to the oak trees of Libbey Park, do not meet growth-conscious Ojai's strict traffic and construction guidelines, concluded Ventura County Superior Court Judge Melinda A. Johnson.

"The city can only approve the project if it complies with all elements of the city's general plan," Johnson wrote in a decision this week. "It does not do so."

The judge ruled on a lawsuit filed last year against the city by Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, an environmental group that contended city officials broke state law when approving the project.

Johnson's ruling blocks the project -- one of four approved by the City Council since 1993. Developers have been grading the lot for months and putting up retaining walls in anticipation of a positive ruling.

Johnson found the city had abused its powers by granting Ojai developers Lance Smigel and Lois Rice an exemption to city guidelines that require two-story structures in the downtown area to be separated by 45 feet.

The council approved plans calling for some of the development's eight large buildings to be just 25 feet apart. The judge said there was no evidence to support such special treatment.

"The council clearly abused its discretion in granting the variance, and it is set aside," Johnson said. She also found that city officials changed estimates of traffic trips from the project without explanation.

A separate decision on whether the project meets Ojai's housing guidelines is expected within days.

City officials said they consider the ruling just one volley in an ongoing battle, and said the judge ruled against the city in only two of eight points in the lawsuit.

"It's not all that simple, but it can be fixed," City Manager Dan Singer said. The City Council will consider an appeal in closed session Tuesday, Singer said.

But Russ Baggerly of the Ventura County Environmental Coalition, and an Ojai Valley resident, said the ruling kills the project.

"We will defend [against] any appeal vigorously," Baggerly said.

City planners will most likely recommend that the council address problems cited in the ruling, and then send the project back to the Planning Commission and council for reconsideration, City Atty. Monte Widders said.

One judicial criticism was that city officials lowered estimates of vehicle trips from the project from 137 a day to 82 without explanation. Similarly, the judge found the city unaccountably changed its estimate of daily trips on clogged California 150 -- Ojai's main street -- from 18,500 a day to 23,500.

Such changes allowed the city to claim the project would not significantly increase traffic in the downtown area, which is more crowded on weekends with tourist traffic.

The ruling also criticized the alternative projects considered for the site by the city.

"The bottom line to each alternative was that it did not meet the developer's [economic] needs," the judge found.

City officials said alternatives were considered but did not meet the developer's needs and the city's need to provide so-called "in-fill" housing near shopping and jobs.

Because the project would replace 29 run-down cottages and single-family homes with 23 condominiums, developers argued there would be no net increase in traffic.

With a growth rate of only 0.3% a year in the 1990s, Ojai's population is still under 8,000.

And new construction is almost nonexistent.

Developer Rice said the decision disappoints her because the high-density project, with units costing about $500,000, should give anti-sprawl proponents what they want.

"What better place to build housing," Rice said, "than in the heart of the city where there's property available?"

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