Three weeks ago, a decision by the Montecito Planning Commission seemed to leave a proposal to redevelop the abandoned Miramar Hotel hanging by a thread.

However, as the commission gears up to discuss the matter on Thursday for what is expected to be the last time, it seems that what once appeared to be a thread might actually be a little thicker. Perhaps a rope.

Developer and potential Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, who three weeks ago said he wanted out, since then has run full-page newspaper ads promoting his proposal to replace the rat-infested cluster of dilapidated cottages along Highway 101 with a five-star resort.

Opponents — who maintain that his proposed hotel is far too large for the area — are speculating that if the Planning Commission denies the project, the shopping center magnate will file an appeal to Santa Barbara County’s most powerful decision-making body: the Board of Supervisors.

“That’s where the game really begins,” said Marco Gonzalez, an attorney with Coast Law Group in Encinitas who represents the opponents.

Caruso Affiliates spokesman Matt Middlebrook declined to tip his hand on that score, saying he preferred not to speculate on what the Planning Commission will do.

“I’m not going to pre-suppose anything,” he said Wednesday.

On Aug. 6, the commission infuriated Caruso by deciding that, before he can begin construction of the 204-room project along Highway 101, he must finance a partial Environmental Impact Review to study water-supply issues. Caruso — who has owned the property for 18 months — has said that a requirement to conduct any sort of EIR is a deal breaker, because such an analysis would be too costly and time-consuming.

Just holding the abandoned property, he says, costs $1 million a month, and a partial EIR, according to county staff members, would take six to nine months to complete. Plus, Caruso, the third man to make an attempt to revive the property that has been abandoned since 2000, believes that all of the necessary studies already have occurred. A similar proposal under the first owner, Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager, already had received county clearance. As such, Caruso, along with county staff members, argued that an EIR was unnecessary.

On Aug. 6, the commission disagreed. Members said that Montecito’s relatively new water-shortage crisis warranted a partial EIR to determine the effect the project would have on the water supply.

The Caruso camp also was unhappy with the commission’s directions on design. Despite the fact that the project received the blessings of the Montecito Association, the Montecito Architectural Board of Review and county staff, the Montecito Planning Commission asked for significant design changes, most of them related to decreasing the size, bulk and scale of the proposed project.

The Caruso project’s proposed net floor area is about 33,000 square feet larger than Schrager’s approved plan of 137,000 square feet. However, Caruso’s proposal includes slightly fewer rooms than Schrager’s.

The Aug. 6 meeting ended on a bizarre note, with Caruso begging for denial, saying the closure would better enable him to sell the property. The commission refused, and instead opted to schedule another meeting for Thursday.

On Thursday, the commission could opt to redact its earlier decision to require a partial EIR. The Caruso camp is arguing that it should do so because the Montecito Water District, which has said it can and would serve the Miramar, has responded to the water crisis by adopting a tiered rate structure that discourages heavy use.

Aug. 6 didn’t mark the first time Caruso had threatened to walk away. In late May, when he learned that a scheduled Planning Commission meeting on the matter would be delayed because of a large volume of community feedback, Caruso issued an ultimatum, saying if the county delayed much longer — and if the county staff recommended an EIR — he would pull the plug.

A couple of days later, a meeting was scheduled, and the county staff issued a recommendation against an EIR. Caruso sent out a mass e-mail expressing gratitude and optimism.

On its face, though, Caruso seemed genuinely over it: His pleas for denial were repeated and unequivocal. Nonetheless, there are signs that his desire to develop remains strong. In this week’s Montecito Journal, he ran a full-page ad trying to dispel what he views to be myths spread by his opponents.

The ad urges supporters to contact Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, whose district includes Montecito, and who appointed all five members of the Montecito Planning Commission.

On Wednesday, Carbajal said a substantial amount of people both for and against the project have contacted him, but there isn’t much he can tell them.

“It’s a little misguided,” he said. “They certainly can let me know what they think, but the most constructive thing the public can do now is let their views be known by the Montecito Planning Commission, which is the decision-making body considering this project.”

Carbajal acknowledged that the project could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, but says that’s another reason he can’t weigh in.

“I could be serving in a quasi-judicial role,” he said. “I cannot prejudice myself in advance of such a hearing that I would be a part of.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at