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Dam Holds Back Retreat Sale

Matilija Hot Springs' owners can't find a buyer because the area could be a flood risk when the nearby aging structure is removed.

August 01, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Brooks and Alison Greene-Barton are eager to sell Matilija Hot Springs, a rustic mountain retreat and former health spa in northern Ventura County they bought and lovingly restored 16 years ago. But they face a 168-foot-high obstacle.

The creek-side property -- storied for its earth-sprung baths and the native Chumash spirits still said to roam there -- sits in the shadow of Matilija Dam, which is scheduled for demolition.

Government officials say they will buy the property at market value if it is at risk for flooding after the dam is torn down. But the necessary studies could take months or even years, officials say.

The Greene-Bartons say that leaves them in real estate limbo: ready to sell but unable to find willing buyers. One bidder dropped out of a $3-million escrow last month after the federal agency heading up the demolition released a report saying Matilija Hot Springs is at the top of its list for potential acquisition.

The couple, New Age therapists, say they are worried about losing their life's nest egg just as they are hoping to settle down elsewhere and start a family.

"We don't have a lot of money," said Brooks Greene-Barton, 59, who chucked a career as a Hollywood real estate broker to lead workshops on spiritual awareness.

"We work for our money. This is our investment. This is our home," he said.

Government officials say their hands are also tied. Until the dam's funding and permitting process is secured, and flooding studies are completed, they cannot begin negotiations to purchase the property.

"Until we know we have a project, the costs of surveyors and appraisals is not justified," said Jeff Pratt of the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, which has teamed with the Army Corps of Engineers on the project.

Dam-removal advocates say the 1947 structure is past its prime. So much sediment has built up in its reservoir that 95% of its water storage capacity is gone, according to the Army Corps of Engineers report.

Biologists say that removing the dam would allow water to flow freely down the Ventura River, restoring a historic run for the endangered steelhead trout. About 5,000 steelhead used to swim upstream each year to reach breeding grounds. Today their number is estimated at about 200.

Sand and sediment from storm runoff would also flow naturally to the ocean, which would replenish Ventura's eroded beaches, the report said. Tearing down the dam, and removing the 6.2 million cubic yards of sand and cobble behind it, will cost $110 million, the corps estimated.

In its feasibility study, the corps targeted a number of other structures that may have to be bought and razed, including 11 cabins downstream of Matilija Hot Springs in an area known as Camino Cielo.

Property owners say they are perplexed as to why their homes would be at risk when they survived severe winter storms before the dam was built. The problem is the sediment that has settled behind the dam over five decades.

"Our numerical models tell us that there is going to be a lot of sediment buildup right there, and that it could cause some unexpected flooding during heavy rain years," Pratt said. "In the worst case, if you have a big storm that exceeded all expectations, we might not have enough time to evacuate people. It's too much of a risk."

Ventura County and the corps will conduct more-detailed studies before deciding on the fate of any of the properties, Pratt said.

"Eminent domain would be a remedy of last resort, and we never give less than fair-market value on property," he said. "It's not like we rob them."

Matilija Hot Springs faces the greatest peril because of its proximity to the dam. It's so close that in winter mist from the spill water drifts over the grounds.

Ventura County owned the land before the Greene-Bartons, having purchased it in 1947 for flood-control purposes when Matilija Dam was being built. When it turned out it was not needed, the county began leasing it to private operators as a hot springs resort.

By 1988, the property had fallen into disrepair and the lessee was behind on rent.

At a public auction, Greene-Barton was surprised to learn that his $400,000 offer was the only bid. He was drawn to Matilija because "it's got a lot of interesting energy," he said.

The nine-acre resort has a long and colorful past.

Legend has it that long before the Spanish built San Buenaventura Mission in 1784, the Chumash built lodges at Matilija and immersed themselves in the hot water bubbling up from the earth as a religious and purification ritual.

A battle between the Spanish settlers and the Chumash in 1824 ended with the natives losing their sacred healing grounds, historians have written. According to legend, Chief Matilija was so filled with grief at the death of a daughter that he jumped to his own death from a rock just below Matilija's springs.

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