Tuesday, September 4, 2007

OVLC Marks 20th Anniversary

Group began to preserve open space, has become one of valley’s largest landowners

By Linda Harmon
Part One of Two: When Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks began to absorb the overflow of the San Fernando Valley 40 years ago, a movement began to preserve what remained of Ventura County’s open space and farm land, an effort that continues today with the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.
Originally formed in 1987 to prevent the development of a Maricopa Highway shopping mall between Nordhoff High School and El Roblar Drive, the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy established the Ojai Meadows Preserve after purchasing the prime land eight years ago.
“My mom actually came across an article in a San Diego paper about a group successfully fighting a shopping mall in San Diego,” said preserve manager Rich Handley, one of the OVLC’s five founders. “ I figured if they could do it, we could too. “
The preserve is one of the last remaining grasslands on the east side of the Ventura River with extensive views of the surrounding Los Padres National Forest.
“The conservancy has been a huge part of preserving Ojai,” said Mayor Carol Smith. “Not only is the organization preserving our open spaces it is actually restoring land back to the state nature intended by restoring this wetland.”
According to Handley there were only a quarter the number of public land trusts that held and protected open space when he and his wife, former Ojai Mayor Ellen Hall, started the organization along with Alasdair Coyne, Brenda Martin and Greg McMillan. Their first office was in Hall’s and Handley’s bedroom.
The group grew to include then Ojai Mayor Nina Shelly and Planning Commissioner David Hirschberg, with more than 40 board members at one time. Then, in 1999, Handley said a $200,000 gift from Taormina resident Ruth Matthews and a $250,000 bequeath from Meiners Oaks resident Pekka Merikellio, were pivotal, allowing the OVLC to raise the rest of the $1.2 million needed to purchase the property.
The OVLC now has an 11-member board, a staff of five full-time and two part-time employees, a yearly operating budget of $275,000, and is headquartered in a small rented office behind the Arcade. It owns five separate preserve parcels; the 80-acre Ilevento Preserve donated in 1997; the 58-acre Ojai Meadows Preserve purchased in 1999 and 2000; the 9-acre San Antonio Creek Preserve donated in 2002; the 1,591-acre Ventura River Preserve Rancho El Nido Unit purchased in 2003; and the 19-acre Ventura River Preserve Confluence Unit purchased in 2004.
They also oversee another 173 acres as areas of influence; the Confluence Conservation Easement, Ojai Valley School Conservation Agreement, the Oso Ridge Conservation Easement, the Riverview Trail Easement, the Fuel Break Road Trail Easement and the Cluff Vista Park completed in 2002. These areas remain open space, permanently protecting them from development while the landowners retain the property’s title.
The OVLC has become a major player receiving local, state and federal grants that enable it to protect the Ojai Valley. The conservancy received grants totaling more than $1 million this year alone., and was chosen to receive a $5,000 monthly payment from the county court awarded penalty in the 2002 criminal trail of William Kaddis. Kaddis, a Los Angeles real estate developer, was found guilty of the unlawful removal of 301 coastal live oaks from his Baldwin Road property.
“The penalty was the court’s answer to making restitution to the people of the Ojai Valley,” said Linda Ash, the assistant Ventura County counsel on the six-year-long case. Ash said the county felt the OVLC would make the best use of the funds and had a demonstrated history of protecting oak trees. The county felt that if Kaddis were simply ordered to replant the trees there was no guarantee he would care for them. This way the funds will be used by the OVLC for purchase of oak habitat or reforestation projects in the Valley.
The hiring eight months ago of Fred Fox as the OVLC executive director, is in keeping with Handley’s belief in the importance of broadening its management resources. Fox, with 13 years land conservation experience, came to them from Montana.
“This is the fourth place I’ve held a position,” said Fox . “I have never been in a community that has been so supportive.” Fox holds a degree in public administration and was previously director of development and communications of the Kansas Nature Conservancy, project director for the Lower Ozarks Land Conservancy, and executive director of the Montana Flatland Land Trust,
Fox says their most visible ongoing restoration project is the Ojai Meadows Preserve established in 1999. He said the project is an example of combining open-space preservation with land restoration, enhancement projects, and educational opportunities.
In the preserve the OVLC hopes to capture groundwater and reverse the damage done by farming, erosion and the invasion of non-native species. The project will cost $2 million, using grants from the U.S. Division of Water Resources and a portion of the Kaddis settlement.
“Tens of thousands of plants are going to be going in there, oaks, native grasses, and scrubs,” said Fox, “with a handful of eucalyptus trees removed to allow for a meandering streambed.”
He said what at first may look counter-productive, with more earth moving and tree removals this fall, is not. It is specifically designed to avoid flooding and duplicate original natural conditions that once supplied a two-acre pool.
“There will be three seasonal vernal pools that will be home to fairy shrimp and spring peepers,” said Fox. “There will be meadows, to marsh, to open water conditions. We’re hoping it will be a bird paradise here.”
“Restoring a wetland in Ojai is incredible,” said Mayor Smith, “when California wetlands are nearly gone. It’s like watching something come back from extinction.”
“This is land completely open to the public,” said Handley, adding that many other trusts limit public access. “You don’t have to make an appointment and have a guide to hike there. I think people appreciate that.”
The OVLC will be celebrating its 20th anniversary at this year’s annual fund-raising event, “Moonlight on the Meadow," on Sept. 15.

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