Opinion: Ojai is in danger of being loved to death


Ojai Valley News file photo


By Patricia Hartmann

Ojai’s economy has often been described as a three-legged stool consisting of education, tourism and farming. Cut off one leg and you’re in for a hard landing.

With a number of renowned private schools in Ojai and a strong public school system, education forms the first leg. The first school in Ojai, facetiously called the Sagebrush Academy, was built at the foot of Dennison Grade in 1869. The Little Brick Schoolhouse was built closer to town on Matilija Street in 1874. Our town has long valued children, their healthy recreation, and their education.

Someone always wants to upset the equilibrium. Kudos to the Ojai Unified School District Board of Trustees for listening to concerned Ojai community members and hitting pause on the ill-conceived plan to convert the historic district office property into a 200-room mega-hotel — a major tip toward mega-tourism.

It’s a delicate balance, those three legs. Big money is always a tempting prize. Some reason, “Wouldn’t it be used to help our schools?”

But the truth is, such money is quickly gone, and we’re left with a devil’s bargain. Remember the California Lottery? Weren’t those gambling profits supposed to put our schools on financial easy street? Another broken promise.  Surely, with the generosity and creativity of its citizens, the beautiful OUSD property can be used for something to benefit the Ojai community as a whole, not just the tourist industry.

Tourism, the second leg of our stool,  has always been a part of this valley. As early as 1877, the ailing, the curious and the wealthy traveled into the valley to stay at The Nordhoff Hotel, which advertised having a bar with wines, liquors and cigars. Soon after, the Oak Glenn Cottages opened as a sanitarium for invalids, touting the valley’s healing climate. In the early 1900s, a stagecoach ran from the town of Nordhoff to Matilija Hot Springs, where the mineral baths were advertised as a boon for the sick. 

All nice enough when you’re trying to build a community at the turn of the century. But in 2022 we need to ask ourselves: Do we really need another wine bar or brew pub? Do we really need another hotel? Can our local one-lane roads, limited parking, and air quality tolerate it? Where is the tipping point when tourism overtakes our town, bringing too much traffic, commercialization, and chaos — destroying the very peace and serenity of our bucolic valley that has long drawn folks to visit and to settle here? Like our national parks, if not protected, Ojai is in danger of being loved to death.

It doesn’t take much to change a town. These changes (some pandemic-related) have already altered Ojai’s businesses. We used to have a shoe store, a bowling alley, a bookstore in the Arcade, a theater, a miniature golf course, and a stationery store. Most of us like to shop local when the downtown is not overrun with tourists. And remember the lessons from the Thomas Fire and the pandemic lockdowns? If our local economy relies too heavily on Transient Occupancy Tax, when hotels shut down, town revenue dries up.

The third leg of our economic stool is farming — an industry that built this town and helps define its open spaces. The first orange trees were planted in Ojai in 1872. People really do come to Ojai in the spring to smell the orange and Pixie tangerine blossoms and to enjoy the rural nature of our valley. Even Lake Casitas was originally built with ag money for agricultural interests.

 Don’t forget that orchards are Ojai’s rainforest — greenery that attracts moisture, absorbs carbon dioxide and releases fresh oxygen. Without its orchards, Ojai would become much more arid. Does it alarm you to see orchards being pulled out in the East End? It should. If Ojai’s orchards go missing and the land is developed, goodbye Shangri-La. Agriculture is taking a big hit lately, with a long drought, rising water costs and other challenges. 

A nice example of the balance of the three-legged stool in Ojai can be seen in something like the yearly Pixie tangerine giveaway at each public school in the valley. Farmers sharing their bounty with students. Or, the Food for Thought program, educating students about how food is grown. And it is all rounded out by tourists coming to Ojai in the spring, especially for this citrus treat.

As we all know, Ojai is a very special place. Keeping it that way requires a very complex balancing act on our three-legged stool. Let’s work together, as we always have, to ensure a legacy of beauty, serenity and mutual prosperity.

— Patricia Hartmann is a retired Nordhoff teacher, farmer, historian and writer of seven books, including her historical fiction novel about Ojai titled: “The Ojai — Pink Moment Promises,”


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