News

News

Ojai City Council honors Deputy Casas and tackles fire, water, tiny homes, and COVID-19

7 30 fire tree

Photo by Reily Brown

Ventura County Sheriff's Deputy Ramon Casas is the man in this fiery silhouette using a fire extinguisher to help prevent the spread of a fire on Montgomery Street the evening of July 30. Deputy Casas was honored at the Aug. 23 Ojai City Council meeting for his bravery in pulling a man away from the flames to safety and helping contain the blaze until the Fire Department arrived.

 

Editor's note: Due to a production error, this article was not printed in its entirety in the Aug. 27 printed edition of the Ojai Valley News. The full article is included in this online version.

 

 By Grant Phillips, Ojai Valley News reporter

Ojai City Council presented a special commendation and commemorative Ojai Centennial coin to Deputy Ramon Casas for his quick response and calm bravery in handling the fire near the Ojai Arts Center on July 30. His bravery was acknowledged with a standing ovation from both the councilmembers and the public at the Aug. 23 council meeting at Libbey Bowl.

 

 

 8 27 21 CASASy

 

 

 

 

Screenshot from Aug. 23 Ojai City Council meeting 

Ojai City Manager James Vega presents a commendation and Ojai Centennial Coin to Ventura County Sheriff's Deputy Ramon Casas, left, at the Aug. 23 City Council meeting. At left is Ojai Police Chief Jose Rivera, who described Deputy Casas' heroic actions on July 30.

 

The Earth Friendly Management item was pulled form the agenda, pending further review and analysis. Certain notifications were sent out on the agenda item being dropped, but more accurate communication was requested by both the public and councilmembers.

“It’s just bad optics,” said Councilmember Randy Haney. “It sends the wrong message to the public that there’s a small group of individuals that are getting more information than the body of the whole, which is the whole community…We have to do better.”

A closed session occurred prior to the meeting about the water adjudication lawsuit, which resulted in no reportable action. 

Tiny homes

The continued discussion of a two-year pilot program for tiny homes resulted in several problems when evaluating the ordinance. 

While the tiny homes would be considered accessory dwelling units under the ordinance, due to their similarity to RVs, they fall under different code standards. Instead of abiding by the building code, they would abide by either the American National Standards Institute code or the National Fire Protection Association standards. While the building code offers fire-hardening standards for homes, tiny homes would not fall under these same restrictions. Instead, the NFPA standards would apply for fire and life safety provisions. Some of these standards include flame-spread limitations surrounding insulation types and other interior finishes, the installation of smoke alarms, propane detectors, and portable fire extinguishers, and other liquid-fuel filler installation provisions. 

The city’s ability to require tiny homes remain affordable is also questionable. While the city can regulate the pricing of the pad of land the tiny homes are placed on, the city cannot regulate how much a resident charges in rent for the tiny home itself. This includes the inability to establish any form of rent control. 

The Costa-Hawkins Act states that rent control can only be applied to units built before Feb. 1, 1995, and because most tiny homes will be built after this date, they will not be subject to rent control. An alternative could be rent stabilization through a limit to the percentage of rent increase annually. Another option could be to regulate the price of the pad, and not the tiny home itself. This would be beneficial in circumstances where an individual or family could procure their own tiny home and move it onto the property themselves, renting out only the pad but not the unit. 

“Under any of these circumstances, the only way to have full control over keeping it affordable is if the party that’s living in it brings their own tiny home,” said Councilmember Ryan Blatz. “These are very bad economic situations to force someone into if we’re trying to get them out of low income or super low income.” 

Other arrangements to create affordability for the tiny homes would result in the city navigating uncharted territory. 

“The law is uncertain here, I can’t guarantee the outcome,” said City Attorney Matt Summers. “We’d be the first city in the state to try an affordability requirement for tiny house pads. But that doesn’t mean we won’t succeed.” 

Any litigation resulting from the decision to include affordability within the ordinance could be risky, leaving the city of Ojai to bear the costs of any legal challenges.

It also remains unclear whether the California Department of Housing and Community Development will allow tiny homes to be applied to the city’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment numbers, the city’s required number of new affordable housing units. 

Additional concerns revolve around hidden fees that owners of the tiny home might experience based around the home’s ADU classification.

Certain surprises could include a reappraisal, resulting in increased property tax, subjecting property owners to the water bond, and other ADU expenses, such as sewage lines, solar and electrical requirements, or Title 24 requirements related to building energy efficiency standards.

Due to the complexity of the issue, and the many gray areas that arise when considering tiny homes as ADUs, the council agreed to table the discussion until Sept. 14 to allow for more research and additional staff reports on the subject. 

Wildfires

The Ojai Wildfire Resiliency Plan draft moved forward, denominating it as a framework. The widespread mitigation steps cover 14 concerns, but leave out the minutia related to each integral element. 

“I think this is not a fully vetted, fully ready-to-rock-and-roll plan. It’s missing a number of things,” said Blatz. “This doesn’t include the litany of things that I personally experienced, and from the feedback we got from the Thomas Fire.”

Certain missing elements discussed were the possibility of gas rationing, maintaining fire breaks, and addressing additional evacuation centers such as Soule Park and area schools. The idea of the involvement of the valley as a whole in the plan for further coordination and cooperation during an emergency was also addressed. 

“One of the issues we need to define as a council is whether we want a fire-resiliency plan to be limited to what can be done just in the Ojai city limits,” said Mayor Pro Tem William Weirick. “Or whether we’re looking at trying to leverage our status as the only municipality in the Ojai area of interest for what needs to be done overall.”

The city intends to start delegating different aspects of the framework to separate boards, volunteers, councils, organizations, and the Office of Emergency Services in a communitywide effort to provide more help and coverage. 

City Manager James Vega outlined aspects of the framework that have already been completed, including ongoing discussions with the Office of Emergency Services, setting up training sessions, replacing and improving AM radio equipment, and obtaining new emergency-notification software for the “My Ojai” app.

Certain delegations have been passed to other commissions and boards as well. The Planning Commission is set to address the Forestry Management Plan and sustainable landscape options, while the Building Appeals Board is expected to address the fire-hardening code at its next meeting on Aug. 30. 

The council is starting to search for volunteers to head the plan and accompanying mitigation efforts. The Fire Safe Council was mentioned by members of the public during the meeting as a possible support system to help carry out the 14 identified goals. 

With unanimous approval, along with the acknowledgement that its current state is not the final end goal, the framework moved forward. The next step involves identifying funding, volunteers to head the programs, and delegations to carry out the framework. 

Water lawsuit

The council provided an update to the ongoing Ventura River Watershed adjudication lawsuit, with Blatz recusing himself from the conversation due to his involvement. The lawsuit is between the city of Ventura, the city of Ojai, and property owners within the Ojai Valley and parts of Ventura.  A full timeline with resources can be found on the adjudication website here: https://www.venturariverwatershedadjudication.com/resources.

In response to a January 2020 lawsuit from Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, the city of Ventura named the city of Ojai and thousands of property owners in a Third Amended Cross-Complaint to adjudicate watershed interests. The initial lawsuit between the city of Ventura and the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper was settled and dismissed in August 2020, but the city of Ventura chose to continue its suit against the city of Ojai and Ojai Valley property owners. At the request of the city of Ojai, Ventura agreed not to seek attorneys’ fees or costs against individuals or businesses named in the case. 

Since then, the city of Ojai has obtained a “Phase 1” hearing to determine whether Ventura has the authority to adjudicate groundwater rights from four separate groundwater, basins including the Ojai basin. The “Phase 1” hearing is set for Feb. 14. 

Meanwhile, the city of Ventura has developed a “physical solution” with several parties, including the Ventura River Water District, Meiners Oaks Water District, Taylor Ranch and Rancho Matilija Mutual Water Company, among other entities. 

This physical solution includes the forming of a new water master under the court’s authority and implementing various physical improvements to the Ventura River watershed to improve fishery.

The physical solution has not been supported by the Casitas Municipal Water District, citing concerns related to cost and governance. 

The next step will be requiring the cities of Ventura and Ojai to disclose their expert witnesses and reports by Aug. 31 and Sept. 24, respectively. 

“I think one of the problems that the physical solution as promulgated initially is there are subtle aspects of connectivity assumptions, both directly and indirectly for the cost allocation, which may not really exist,” said Weirick, citing the hydrology relationship between the Ojai aquifer and the Ventura River. “Given that our primary water supply is the Ojai aquifer, the city definitely has a vital interest in having the accurate hydrological assessment and cost allocation reflecting that embedded in whatever happens.”

This question of connectivity is one of the primary issues that will be addressed in the upcoming “Phase 1” hearing. 

The court case has resulted in more than $7 million in expenses from the city of Ventura, a number acquired by the Ojai Valley News through a Public Records Act request. When the Ventura City Council approved another $900,000 to be spent on the adjudication lawsuit last month, it also announced a budget cut of $11 million, citing the pandemic. 

“This is just plain and simple the city of Ventura, who wants more than their share, so they can continue to grow and continue to maintain the infrastructure that they have in place,” said Haney. “They’re looking at any way they can to possibly save…. The unfunded obligations that that community has are huge. That’s why they need more.”

COVID-19

The recent surge of COVID-19 cases drew concern from the council. Both hospitalization and ICU numbers have nearly doubled over the past 14-days, with hospitals going from 70 at the beginning of the month to 145 on Wednesday. These numbers are drastic increases from just nine hospitalizations in June and two in May. The number is still lower than the peak in January, where they reached 449. ICU numbers have also increased, jumping to 34 patients from just 18 at the beginning of the month. There were only six ICU patients in July and two in June. 

COVID testing via COVID Clinic at Sarzotti Park has expanded to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m starting Aug. 30. The additional day, along with the ability to pre-register, is expected to shorten the lines. A total of 86 people waited in line to be tested on Aug. 20. 

The recent mask mandate was also addressed, requiring face coverings for indoor businesses until at least Sept. 19. 

COVID Clinic currently offers free PCR tests with results in two days, or next-day results for a fee of $150. The council considered the option of using Rapid Antigen tests within the city. The discussion came from a recent decision by the Centers for Disease Control to withdraw the request to the Food and Drug Administration for Emergency Use Authorization of the PCR tests, citing problems distinguishing influenza viruses and COVID-19 among positive tests.

The city of Ojai intends to stay proactive on the issue. As Haney pointed out, Ojai was the first city in Ventura County to issue a mask mandate during the beginning of the pandemic. The city is looking at other progressive options to help curve the spread. 

“We’re a tourist-based economy,” said Haney. “Anything and everything that we can do to keep our community safe is what we need to look at.” 

Mayor Betsy Stix was also selected to attend the League of California Cities annual conference in Sacramento on Sept. 22-24, with Councilmember Suza Francina selected an alternate. 

The full City Council meeting can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LH5Jc6auto&t=6315s .

 

 

 
 

Not a subscriber?  choose your subscription plan.