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Smell of Coffee Is Grounds for a Dispute

A few Ojai Valley residents complain about the aroma from a popular cafe. Others say it's just a tempest in a teapot.

June 06, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

When Ralph Steele wakes up and smells the coffee, he reaches for the phone.

Steele is one of half a dozen Ojai Valley residents complaining that the aroma of roasting coffee beans from a coffee shop a block away is making them sick.

Fumes from sizzling Mayan blend and French decaf are so acrid, Steele and the others contend, that the county should force the cafe to cease all roasting operations.

But the owners of Stir Crazy cafe say that would put them out of business. By roasting their own beans, they keep costs down and their cafe packed, says Jody James, who opened the business with her sister, Janine Ames, a year ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Coffee fumes -- An article that ran in the California section on June 6 quoted Ojai resident Kathy Smith as talking to neighbor Ralph Steele about fumes from coffee beans roasting at a nearby cafe. Smith said she has never spoken to Steele about the problem, but was referring to a conversation with a window washer.

The sisters are mystified why their artsy cafe is being targeted when they share a commercial strip with a host of fast-food outlets -- many of them there decades.

James has already upgraded the cafe's air filtration system and limited roasting hours in an attempt to appease the dissidents. But with complaints still trickling in, the brewing controversy continues.

"All we ever wanted to do is have a nice little coffee shop," said James, 45. "Have nice music and an area to have community meetings."

Steele, who has headed up the opposition, declined to comment.

But in complaints to Ventura County's Air Pollution Control District, he and others say the vapors make their eyes water and their lungs burn. They say they are worried about the long-term health effects of inhaling roasting fumes.

Complaints are being logged at a rate of two to three a week -- usually from the same four or five people, said Larry Scott, compliance supervisor with the air pollution district.

In semi-rural Ventura County, people typically call his office to report pesticides drifting from farm fields or the pungent odor of fresh manure over a citrus orchard, Scott said. Sewer smells are also frequent offenders.

But java?

"Personally I don't find it offensive," Scott said. "But people are sensitive to different smells. As a regulator, we can only try to smell the odor and then take enforcement action if necessary."

County officials have been out to the neighborhood several times and so far have found not even a whiff of a problem, Scott said.

Some of the cafe's defenders, meanwhile, suggest that Steele is a cranky retiree with too much time on his hands.

He is the kind of neighbor who goes to authorities when someone builds an illegal add-on or drives down the street too fast, said Kathy Smith, whose home lies upwind of the cafe.

While the scent of roasting beans is sometimes noticeable, it's not like living next to a sewage plant, Smith said.

"I find it hard to believe that there are some physical repercussions that would come of that," Smith said.

Just off of California 33 on the road to Ojai, Stir Crazy has had brisk business since its doors opened. Patrons say they like drinking coffee in a casual yet sophisticated place that displays the works of local artisans.

LaNette Donoghue, 56, sitting with a writers group that meets each week, said it would be a loss if the shop were forced to close.

"Sometimes we extend our castles beyond our boundaries," Donoghue said. "They have to realize this street is a business street and find a way to compromise."

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