Ojai is still a place that uplifts the spirit

January, 2000

On New Year’s Day I sat high up on a rock in the East End, overlooking the whole valley. Here I could immerse myself in the spectacular view of the majestic mountains, orange and avocado groves, and relax in the profound peace and stillness that still pervades this part of the valley.

In a more enlightened era, a place as beautiful as Ojai would have the same level of protection as a National Park. Its mountains, creeks, fields and groves would be regarded as a treasure that should be preserved and protected for future generations. Our valley would be regarded as holy, as a healing place.

Thankfully, the Ojai Valley is still a place that uplifts the human spirit and nourishes the soul. At least for us, Ojai is still Shangri-la.

We owe a great debt to all the concerned citizens and elected officials who made the critical decisions that allowed Ojai to remain a small town.

The Ojai Valley News’ (OVN) archives tell a riveting tale of one battle after another to save Ojai from the demons that destroyed small towns across the nation: freeways, chain store sprawl, mining, oil drilling, dumps and dozens of battles pertaining to condominiums, apartments and trailer parks.

As we enter the year 2000, in many ways the problems Ojai faces remain the same, but the pressures that contribute to these problems have increased. Essentially, it is the eternal problem of preserving our town, preserving our orchards and open space, while providing jobs and housing for all economic levels, revitalizing our downtown core and managing the traffic generated by both those of us who live here and thousands of visitors.

The Land Use Element of our General Plan, updated in 1997, sets forth the city’s fundamental land use philosophy-future growth will consist primarily of in-fill development.

The Circulation Element of our General Plan addresses the need to create a balanced transportation system. In 1999, the city adopted a Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan that recognizes that part of the solution to our traffic problems lies in encouraging our local residents and visitors to make more short trips by foot or bicycle.

Again, the archives of the OVN reveal countless editorials that state: “The biggest problem that the city of Ojai has to face, now and in the future, is solving the downtown traffic congestion ” (Ojai City Manager Jack Blalock, Dec. 24, 1967 OVN). Every imaginable strategy for diverting traffic from Ojai Avenue has been discussed over the years. Perhaps the only way left to create a car-free pedestrian zone town square between Libbey Park and the arcade is to build an ingenious underground tunnel between Signal and Montgomery.

One of the greatest challenges we face in the years ahead is reducing traffic in spite of a growing population. There are many traffic reduction strategies we can implement in our valley where most destinations are less than three miles. We can reduce our traffic count only if we have the will and desire to do so. A parking lot moratorium is a step in the right direction. And those who organize weekend events that attract large numbers of tourists must have a plan to allow these thousands of visitors to enter our valley without a car.

A necessary element for the economic survival of communities like Ojai is their ability to support businesses that rely heavily on telecommunications and the Internet to market themselves in Ojai. Another challenge for the year 2000 is working to create economic health in a manner that stays in harmony with the small town nature of Ojai.

Intimately linked to the critical issue of attracting more adequate-paying local jobs is the double-edged sword of tourism. We need to ask ourselves if we are catering too much to high-end tourism. Will Ojai follow the fate of Maui, Aspen, Sedona, Coeur d’Alene and other places that traded their hometown feeling and beauty for dollars?

We need to think about the type of tourists we want to attract. The natural beauty could be offered to outdoor enthusiasts, to people who make conscious efforts to enjoy the gifts nature has to offer while protecting them.

Away from the noise of traffic in downtown Ojai, it is easy to imagine Ojai like a protected island, a jewel relatively unspoiled by the environmental degradation of the rest of the planet. The year 2000 will bring growing awareness of global warming, species loss and the contamination of all that sustains life.

Ecologists agree that cities must be the central focus of strategies for a sustainable future. The years ahead will force us to confront the reality that Ojai cannot accommodate a growing population unless we change over to more sustainable planning. The fate of our valley is the fate of the Earth.

Suza Francina is the mayor of Ojai.
Ojai Valley News, Guest Commentary, January 7, 2000

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