Nestled at the intersection of State Route 33 and Highway 150, Ojai enjoys a reputation as one of Santa Barbara’s most idyllic inland neighbors. Tucked in the shadow of the Santa Ynez Mountains and just a short drive from Ventura, the Ojai Valley is an oasis in the sprawl of Southern California. However, with plans to expand gravel mining operations in the area, the sleepy little city of about 8,000 residents is facing a potential daily invasion of several hundred 80,000-pound rock-hauling Mack trucks on their way to and from the Cuyama Valley mines. “Ojai is a little Shangri-La that depends on tourism,” explains resident and former CEO of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce Howard Smith. “But if all of a sudden you’ve got 600 gravel trucks rolling through town every day, you don’t have much of a tourist town anymore.”
Preventing that sort of tractor-trailer reality is a top priority for Smith’s organization, Stop the Trucks, the members of which have their sights set on halting current plans to expand the hauling associated with the existing Ozena mine and the proposed development of the Diamond Rock mine. Since 2001, Ozena has been permitted by Ventura County to run about 100 trips a day-mostly on Route 33-from 6 to 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. However, since the company’s permits expired last year, it has been looking to double its daily trips and expand its hours of operation. (According to Smith and other area residents, Ozena has been running trucks well after and before the legally allowed hours, with little to no resistance from Ventura County.) Then there is the Diamond Rock operation, which falls under Santa Barbara County jurisdiction and is seeking a 30-year, 138-trips-a-day permit with no time restrictions.
The Diamond Rock plan, which is scheduled to return to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission this week after a grueling eight-hour session in late May, has also come under fire from environmental groups like Los Padres Forest Watch and from Cuyama Valley residents, who are concerned with the mines’ possible impacts on the forest, valley air quality, and the water table. Further compounding the fervor over the proposed expansions of mining activity are existing operations that already send big rigs up and down the narrows of the 150 and the 33, such as the Lima Gypsum Mine, GPS mines, and the Mossler rock quarry. A quick crunch of the numbers suggests that roads around Ojai, should all the proposed permits gain approval, could potentially see 600 to 800 trucks a day hauling massive loads of rock to Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Paula, and Santa Maria at all hours of the day. In the mine company’s defense taking the 154 and 33 saves the trucks some 45 minutes of travel time.
Besides the impact on quality of life and ambience, Smith contends safety is also a major factor, as the roads traveled by the trucks have tunnels that force the rigs to cross over into oncoming traffic, as well as several switchback turns over the mountains. To that end, Caltrans, at the behest of Ventura County officials and Ojai residents, released a truck study report last week that examines safety issues on Route 33 from Ojai to the Santa Barbara County line.
Despite the concerns of residents who travel the road every day, the document contends that the scenic two-lane highway “can be traveled safely” by increased truck traffic just as long as the rigs are shorter than 38 feet in length and follow the rules of the road. Troubled at what he perceives as a willingness on the part of both Ventura and Santa Barbara county planners as well as Caltrans to grease the wheels for the respective projects in the name of money, Smith commented, “It is outrageous that people are advocating putting more trucks on these roads : Basically Ojai is being sacrificed for the economic growth of places like Santa Paula.”