City eyes Soule Park
by C.A. Gilman
With Mayor Steve Olsen casting the sole "no" vote
at Tuesday night's City Council meeting, the council again approved
the Los Arboles project.
The Planning Commission had unanimously approved the project
on Nov. 5.
The 23-unit mixed-use Los Arboles condominiums are located on
3.13. acres on the east and west sides of South Montgomery Street,
at 203 to 307 S. Montgomery Street , approximately 500 feet south
of Ojai Avenue.
The Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, and the Environmental Coalition
of Ventura County, have long opposed the development, and have
filed three lawsuits to prevent its construction. They maintain
the project will increase traffic, decrease air quality, add
luxury homes, and interfere with the village quality of life
in downtown Ojai.
In its most recent suit, Judge Melinda Johnson issued a ruling
on Oct. 8 that was in favor of the project in most respects except
for three: a variance allowing a 25-foot setback between buildings;
increased traffic levels that were inconsistent with the General
Plan; and lack of evidence to support the conclusion that less
dense alternatives would not return a fair profit to the owners.
Construction on Los Arboles stopped with that decision.
However, since the filing of the suit, the city zoning has changed
to allow for a 25-foot setback rather than the previous 45 feet.
The developer, Lance Smigel, also agreed to additional traffic
mitigation such as vans and trolley stops.
Independent traffic, economic and environmental consultants submitted
reports substantiating data that showed that, in fact, the project
would decrease traffic, and that its owners could not realize
their profit with fewer units.
However, despite the council's approval Tuesday night, city attorneys,
independent consultants, judge's decisions, changes in design
plans, EIRs, traffic studies, suits, countersuits, and appeals,
the opponents to the project persist. Ivor Benci-Woodward, CPO
president, said, "I'm sure that the project will be challenged
again. Just changing the numbers around doesn't change anything.
We will ask the judge to enforce her decisions."
Councilmember Rae Hanstad said, "I want to clarify that
Los Arboles isn't the city's project, it is the developer's project.
I support this project because it brings village-mixed use and
people living near and using our town center. And it's a beautiful
project. The quality of our lives is determined by the quality
of our environment which is dependent on the quality of our land
City Attorney Monte Widders clarified that the developer is responsible
for city legal fees for the, not the taxpayers.
Many of the packed audience waited patiently until 10:30 p.m.
to discuss the potential transfer of Soule Park from the county
to the city. The transfer is part of a trend in Ventura County
to transfer its parks to the cities where they are located in
order to save money.
Soule Park is a 55-acre public day-use park currently owned and
operated by the county. Zaidee Soule deeded the land to the county
in 1957 with the restriction that it be maintained for recreational
use. Subsequently the county turned a majority of the land into
a public golf course with the remaining southeast corner, accessed
off of Boardman Road, established as a park and public equestrian
center. The park is currently home to a number of group picnic
facilities, two tennis courts, an improved softball field, equestrian
center, and maintenance and storage yard. Restrooms, play equipment,
and individual picnic facilities are scattered throughout the
In addition to the 55-acre park, the county is also offering
a 166-acre parcel of oak wooded hillsides representing an unobstructed
view shed just below Black Mountain.
City Manager Dan Singer highlighted pros and cons of the project.
Pros included additional recreational space, more control of
a key park, and other land or funds that the county would assist
Ojai with during the transfer. These included underground utility
lines from Montgomery St east and reconstruction of San Antonio
Cons included cost to operate, improve and maintain; and other
priority projects that required the city's funds.
Many of the neighbors were concerned about what would happen
to the valley's only equestrian center that is within the park.
Larry Hartmann maintained that it was the county's responsibility
for upkeep and maintenance - not the city's to assume the cost.
Pat Hartmann said it would add 7,000 additional car trips a day.
Jim Ruch wanted to know where the money would come from. He
said, "Ventura County has chosen to use Soule Park income
for purposes other than Soule Park maintenance and management,
resulting in shortfall to both. We strongly recommend you do
nothing unless you take care of the bike trail and the bridge
Let's take the time to do this job right."
Mayor Steve Olsen said, "The intent is to provide appropriate
recreational facilities for the city; I don't trust the county.
Look at Dennison Park; look at the Wendy's. If
anything I think the city would improve the equestrian center
in Soule park. We need to discuss the cost, the usage, time
restraints and to involve all the recreational entities."
Ojai's recreational budget is $750,000 a year.
Council member Sue Horgan said, "I think we should investigate
a recreational district, a park master plan, a capital improvement
plan, uses, and what we want to provide before moving forward.
The city can't afford this. It's a white elephant the county
is trying to dump on us."
Hanstad agreed, "There is also a declining school age population.
We need to
take care of what we have now. We can't even maintain the skateboard
park; we need to build the park at the Y."
Although Hanstad and Horgan were against continuing negotiations,
Bury, Olsen, and DeVito were in favor. The council's decision
was for further discussions and public workshops.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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