Cutting a swath through dense pockets of Buck Brush and California Sage while winding under overhanging oaks and Laurel Sumac, the Foothill Trail crests the first ridge as a panoramic view of the Ojai Valley unfolds ahead. Rich green grasses and ferns blanket the ground on the north slope of the hillside making a distinct border around the dark brown soil of the trail. Birds quietly carrying on chattering conversations and the occasional yip of a coyote are about the only sounds you can hear.
It’s easy to forget just how close to civilization you are.
Less than a mile away as the crow flies, downtown Ojai is alive with activity. As your hiking boots pound on the uneven ground, each step bringing you more in sync with the heartbeat of the natural world, the hustle and bustle of everyday life seems a long ways away.
The future of this amazing location that sits right in our own backyard, is uncertain though.
A portion of the Foothill Trail, among other hiking areas located above Shelf Road and North Signal Street, crisscross the largest private parcel within Ojai’s city limits. Two years ago, 195 acres of pristine land went up for sale, opening the potential for anyone to purchase the mostly undeveloped land.
Knowing that the property could potentially be developed, the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy began a campaign to grab it before it could fall into the wrong hands. Now, after more than two years of planning, the Land Conservancy is poised to purchase the parcel, taking it under its protective wing and preserving it for the community.
Greg Gamble, executive director of the OVLC, is one of many who believes that the property should remain undeveloped, and open to the public.
“The key thing is that this is our backyard,” he said while hiking up the trail toward the parcel, showing the OQ where the property lines begin. “It’s 7 percent of the land within the city limits, and once this deal is done, it’s protected forever.”
Gamble says that negotiations with Coldwell
Banker have been completed, and the OVLC has entered into a contract with realtors, effectively locking in the Conservancy’s right to purchase the property.
Now all that stands in the way of the deal is the almighty dollar.
“We’ve got the contract to buy the parcel,” said Gamble. “Now we need to finish raising the funds to make it happen.”
The property was originally listed at $1 million, but through negotiations and surveying, the Land Conservancy was able to settle with property owners, bringing the price down to $400,000. Along with the price of the acquisition, the organization would work to clean up and restore the property.
“There’s some old fencing and electrical equipment that needs removal,” said Gamble, “and there’s at least one water tank on the property that’s not in use. those are the kinds of things that we need to clean up.”
Factoring in the cost of the necessary cleanup of the area, the OVLC will need to raise a total of $500,000 to purchase and maintain the site, and they have until May 31 to get it done.
According to Gamble, they have already raised about $300,000 through private donations, but there’s still a long way to go.
“We’ve been talking to friends and supporters that have pledged and given generous amounts,” he said. “That’s the silent phase of the plan. Now, in the public phase, we get to involve the whole community.”
Local activist Ron Phillips is one such supporter of the OVLC’s cause. He, like Gamble, believes that protecting our remaining natural land is vital for our future.
“My wife Linda and I love the beauty of Ojai and really think it’s important to maintain it,” said Phillips,. “We feel that the Land Conservancy’s effort to keep visible, natural land in Ojai is imperative for Ojai’s identity. When these opportunities come up, we really strongly support that.”
One of the concerns for the project’s supporters is the visibility of the hillside in question. Looking up toward Nordhoff Peak from downtown, the 195 acres dominants the view. Many are concerned that, if developed, the parcel could become an eyesore as potential homes, roads or other infrastructure begin to pop up. Although without proper surveying and appraising, it’s impossible to say how many homes could be constructed on the site, Gamble thinks that enough potential is there to warrant the Land Conservancy’s protection.
“Most everybody that passes through Ojai each day can see this property,” he said while sweeping his hand across the vista of oaks and shrubs seen both from the trail and from town. “If a developer buys this property, it’s possible that they could build multiple homes .They would have to build roads to the homes and have lighting along those roads and driveways. The hillside would never look the same.”
Gamble isn’t just running the operation behind the project. He, like so many other locals, enjoys getting into the mountains that are just minutes from his front door. Often hiking the trails with his wife Darcy, who also works for the OVLC, and their two children, Gates and Scarlett, he wants to help ensure that the trails traversing the property remain open to the public.
“We really need to keep these trails available for hikers and backpackers,” he
said. “If someone else buys the property, they could deny public access to the trails on the land even if they didn’t develop it.”
Gamble isn’t the only one who wants to see the trails remain open.
Ojai resident James Peet hikes in the mountains above Ojai as often as he can. Although not affiliated with the OVLC, Peet’s approach seems to be the epitome of the reasons for preserving the land.
Living less than a block from North Signal Street, Peet doesn’t have to travel far to get into his extended backyard.
“I was at home a couple of weeks ago with nothing to do,” said Peet. “I decided to go for a little hike up in the hills. I just walked out of my front door and hiked up to the trail. We’re lucky to be this close to something like that.”
Although the City of Ojai has not taken an official position on the deal, city manager Rob Clark says the city council has been supportive of preserving the land in the past, and believes that the community would benefit if the OVLC makes the purchase.
“Most people think that the hillside up there is all national forest,” said Clark. “That’s not the case. Because it’s private property, that public access could be potentially taken away. This is one of those things where everybody has to do their part to make it happen.”
Phillips, who is on the OVLC’s committee to raise funds for the project, believes that the concept is simple. “It’s so important to keep the culture and specialness of Ojai intact,” he said. “That’s what this project is going to help do.”
The Land Conservancy is now entering the phase of gaining the public’s support for the deal. Although no fund-raising effort is ever the same, the Land Conservancy’s staff and volunteers are no strangers to preserving the land in the valley.
According to the OVLC, the organization owns a dozen properties totaling about 2,000 acres.
Through government funding as well as private and public donations, the Conservancy has spent around $10 million in acquisitions and has had millions more donated in property.
Raising funds for their different projects might be a challenging task, but Gamble says the money is well spent, as in the case of what is planned for this special land.
“We really need the community to get behind this and help us fund the project,” he said, adding that supporters are getting a real bang for their buck. “When the Land Conservancy protects something, it’s forever. Very few things in life have the permanence of a transaction such as this one. This is what we live for.”
The OVLC and its current supporters will continue to do their part to secure Ojai’s hillside for many generations to come. The question now is: What’s your backyard worth to you?