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OUSD development plan gets cool reception at packed meeting

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Ojai Valley News photo by Laura Rearwin Ward

Trevor Quirk of Upper Ojai tells the Ojai Planning Commission to scrap the Ojai Unified School District’s proposed development plan.

 

Grant Phillips, Ojai Valley News reporter

Nearly 250 people packed the Boyd Center and lawn Nov. 17, with most speakers opposing Ojai Unified School District’s development proposal for its office headquarters and Chaparral High School, located at 414 E. Ojai Ave.

The Ojai Planning Commission hosted a presentation from the proposed project's developer, SVS DEV LLC, consisting of developer Brian Veit, designer Kristine Overacre, architect Bradley Schnell, traffic engineer Darryl Nelson, and Tanner Shelton from Jensen Design, who provided a project overview.

The only OUSD representatives in attendance were David Soldani, legal council for OUSD, and Joel Kirschenstein, the board’s appointed property negotiator.

OUSD school board members held their separate, regularly scheduled board meeting at the same time as the Planning Commission meeting. The school board’s Nov. 17 agenda included information that the school board may take up the development proposal at its upcoming December meeting.

The development group originally presented its concept in September 2019 after securing a Request for Proposal from OUSD which consisted of a 175-room hotel, housing, commercial space, subterranian parking and a restoration of the bell tower. 

The proposed hotel room count dropped from 203 to 175 (for comparison, the Ojai Valley Inn has 306 rooms and suites); the housing portion allocated 15% to the “affordable” category; and a new map of locations was presented.

More than 50 public comments, both in-person and via Zoom, centered around opposition to the hotel, with residents noting the traffic on Ojai Avenue at Montgomery Street and the project’s proximity to the El Roblar Hotel, still undergoing renovations of its own.

“The reasons the community is opposed to this development have already been laid out: water, congestion, traffic,” said Trevor Quirk of Upper Ojai, who presented the Planning Commission with more than 2,000 signatures gathered in opposition of the development. “Form a commission of these folks, ask them for their input instead of giving them three minutes, and then go back to the drawing board,” he said.

Alternative ideas for the site from the public included staff, retirement, or affordable housing with prioritization for Ojai residents, a technical school, community event space for gatherings such as the Farmers’ Market that takes place at the site, a community pool, parking meters, and other concepts that provide revenue to OUSD while keeping community at the forefront.

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Ojai Valley News photo by Laura Rearwin Ward 

Developers and designers from SVS DEV LLC at the panel, alongside legal and development representation from OUSD. 

 

“This is a frightening thing,” said Ojai resident Barbara Bowman. “I don’t think the hotel is the way to go, but I think there’s a possibility of working with this group.”

Beyond concerns from the public like the character of Ojai, what’s best for the community, and transparency (with both commissioners and the public noting the lack of online presence and project history related to the development company), Planning commissioners said there are practical issues to consider.

“The next time you come through … I would ask that you take a closer look at the Ojai Municipal Code,” said Planning Commission Chair Steve Quilici. “You have to realistically add up the parking that’s required by the Municipal Code for all of the activities in the size that you propose them, because these numbers that you’ve put in the booklet here don’t work.”

Other anticipated planning entitlements include a General Plan Amendment, Zoning Map Amendment, Design Review permit, lot-line adjustment of the parcel map, and a development agreement.

A subterranean, multilevel parking garage in the plan was addressed, with commissioners pointing to challenges the adjacent skatepark faced such as a water table 8 to 10 feet below the surface and their installment of a sump-pump solution.

“I can’t speak to that, but we can certainly look into it,” said OUSD representative Kirschenstein. “Any development, even if it’s the school district that wants to do something, there would have to be geological tests and surveys done.”

The current ground lease from OUSD to the developer is estimated between 66 to 99 years with a zoning change from Public to Village Mixed Use.

As a relocation fee, the development company agreed to provide OUSD with $2 million that would be paid back to the development company retroactively.

The current agreement between OUSD and SVS DEV LLC requires that either a percentage of rent greater than 4% of project’s gross revenue, or an annual $240,000 base rent, be paid to reimburse upfront costs.

Through a ground lease and rezoning from Public to Village Mixed Use, property tax could be collected from the development if OUSD enters a lease agreement. Because OUSD is tax exempt, it would need to lease the land, or a portion of it, to a taxable entity such as a developer.

Only then would the lease hold become a taxable interest.

In terms of selling residential property under a ground lease, OUSD could theoretically take a Palm Springs-like approach regarding “Indian Lease Land,” a way that provides for individuals to own the structure and lease the land on which it stands for the duration of the long-term lease. The concept has not been attempted in Ojai before.

Anticipated profits from the project could go to OUSD staff salaries, Morse told the Ojai Valley News on Nov. 18. Morse cited OUSD staff as being the lowest paid in the county in nearly all positions, with hope additional stable funding would allow the district to offer more-competitive salaries.

Enrollment in OUSD has steadily declined since 1998, a trend in California. EdSource.org reported the state forecasts 11.4% fewer students over the next decade, with Los Angeles and Ventura school districts taking the most impact.

Several potential “off-ramps” to allow the school district to change course have been mentioned by OUSD boardmembers for themselves, the community, city, and developers.

The development site, designated “Historic Landmark 24–Nordhoff Grammar School,” would require approval from the Historic Preservation Commission prior to any development, said Historic Preservation Commission Chair Brian Aikens at the meeting.

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Ojai Valley News photo by Laura Rearwin Ward

Historic Preservation Commission Chair Brian Aikens discusses the site's history and importance during the Planning Commission meeting. 

 

“I’m not going to justify any of the missteps that we made,” said SVS developer Veit. “We were agendized and put before a Planning Commission without even being told. We found out we were on the agenda when you found out. I don’t know how or why that happened, but it was pretty unfair.”

Community Development Director Lucas Seibert said the applicant had the opportunity to cancel or reschedule the meeting. “They were certainly aware and they made that choice to move forward,” said Seibert.

While no official action could be taken at the meeting, the Planning Commission recommended the development company incorporate ideas from the public, complete the appropriate surveys, and abide by Ojai Municipal Code prior to any additional concept reviews.

“The Planning Commission will not be making a decision tonight,” said City Attorney Matt Summers. “The development responsibility is not with the city. Development responsibility lies with the school district who owns the land.”

Next steps for the project include design development, a community workshop, public hearings, and an environmental analysis.

Throughout the meeting, developers and the community noted the project is still at the starting line.

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Ojai Valley News photo by Laura Rearwin Ward

Signs from several protestors during the Planning Commission discussion related to the Ojai Town Square project. 

 

“In our mind, this was the first opening of this process," Veit said. "We didn’t intend it to be one option, everything is on the table. To the extent we can, we will retool this and try to get community involvement, which will take a long time. And that’s understood.”

A community workshop is scheduled if the project survives an additional OUSD review, but no date has been set.

Information on the development plan can be viewed at https://www.ojaitownsquare.com/.

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