Opinion Editorial: Preservation or power grab?

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Laura Rearwin Ward, publisher

The false timeline was set, protectionist cards were played, and free money was offered by the city of Ojai Historic Preservation Commission last week as it rolled out its beautiful slide presentation about the historic value of Ojai's downtown. 

Any Ojaian would have been touched. 

Commission Chair Brian Aikens led the charge to "save" an area that has managed to maintain its character without a Historic District designation for 100 years — by the end of its birthday come August. The pretty pictures and urgency in their voices to protect our old-town charm from threats, both from inside and out, tugged at our heartstrings and paved the way to install themselves — personally — as oversight over every building permit in the new district.

The timing for this move is strategic. The best time to wrest control of the Chaparral school property and grow power at the city level is at the exact moment when fears have recently peaked due to the doomed lease and development project brought forward by Ojai Unified School District. The project, which was never close to being successful, did not require the five white knights of the Historic Preservation Commission — Brian Aikens, Cindy Convery, Gina McHatton, Valerie James and Jennie Prebor — to stop it. We had Ojai city government standing by with zoning, planning and its trusty traffic-credit rule to stop any development it wanted.

If we weren’t taken in with the stirring images or the fear of outsiders, Commissioner Convery offered to save property owners on taxes (after applications and reviews, of course) and to attract more tourists. 

Ms. Convery said at the Jan. 18 special joint meeting of the Ojai City Council and Historic Preservation Commission: “The 40 best places to live in America, 90 percent of them are National Register. They attract better-quality tourists, higher-spending dollars… they attract better-quality businesses … you’re not talking about people that are slobs coming to town. It just attracts a better-quality visitor…

“The point of having a business that you can’t restore — and you have to have a poor renter in there that can’t support the town — it brings Ojai down. We want to bring Ojai up. We want to support good businesses, quality tourists and quality products in town. That’s what this is about.”

Most business owners shudder at the thought of additional layers of bureaucracy and red tape. The Historic Preservation Commission already exerts tremendous influence on buildings in the downtown area. With a Historic District in place, the Commission would have greater authority and automatic review of any change, even on emergency-basis repairs, before a second round at Building and Safety and city Planning. 

The good folks of the Commission have minimal qualifications to arbitrate Ojai’s architectural building history or to balance our economic vitality. These five commissioners will be the deciders on what molding, walkway or roof is considered contributing to Ojai’s history, by putting restrictions on people by way of historic designation. They will then determine whether the parcel owner will get the tax break to offset the cost of those restrictions.

The “free money” the Commission offered, if it is successful, could cost the city $100,000 annually, estimated City Manager James Vega at the Jan. 18 meeting. Money is apparently no object for the four City Council members who voted for it. Perhaps the city plans to make up the lost revenue in a new sales tax, or on fees, with a pound of flesh from local business owners.

Confounding the issue is the mechanism for voting on the Historic District. 

The Commission itself will write a letter to each owner apprising them of their right to vote on the Historic District designation. Then, the city attorney has interpreted Ojai Municipal Code sections 4-8.08(d)(4) and 4-8.09 to mean that every parcel owner will have one vote on the proposed district. However, owners with multiple parcels will also have only one vote. 

Perhaps the concern over local government overreach and morass of regulations by minimally qualified commissioners will be greater than the fear of taxes.

Using deep-seated fear of strangers and fear of change can be seductive arguments. Can they really make Ojai great again? It's a tune that lacks vision, but is often used by those who would themselves be king.

ACTION: Want to help control the destiny of the downtown economy yourself? Apply online for one of the two openings on the Historic Preservation Commission open in May at


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