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Stalled Miramar Hotel Seeking Year Extension to Begin Renovation

Caruso Affiliates cites economic conditions in asking Montecito Planning Commission for more time

It’s approaching a year since lawsuits against backers of the Miramar Hotel were dropped, but the Montecito project has been all but stalled since being given the green light last April.

After months of silence, some South Coast residents began to question whether Rick Caruso, the developer behind the 204-room hotel at 1555 S. Jameson Lane, was still in charge of the project.

But a statement sent out last week from Caruso assured the public that Caruso Affiliates is still pushing the project forward, although extra time is needed largely as a result of a faltering market for luxury hotels.

Caruso representatives will be asking for a year-long extension Wednesday from the Montecito Planning Commission.

The project was approved in December 2008, but opponents filed a series of lawsuits challenging the project’s environmental documents, and went on to appeal the project approvals before the state Coastal Commission.

The lawsuits were withdrawn on April 6, 2009, and the project was seemingly back on track.

But by the time the litigation was settled, however, the economy had tanked, including the market for luxury hotels.

“Hotels including the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito, the Four Seasons San Francisco, the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco and the St. Regis Monarch Bay in Laguna Beach, among many others, have all declared bankruptcy or faced some form of default or special services in recent months,” Caruso said in the statement.

The decision to approve an extension will have to come from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors since it approved the project, but the Planning Commissioners will make a recommendation.

The project is expected to go before the supervisors on March 16.

An extension can be granted for the project if good cause is shown and no significant changes to the approved project have been made. Caruso also could file for two additional time extensions if the criteria are met.

If officials approve all of the available time extensions, the permits would be valid until 2015.

Despite the project’s apparent lull, Caruso said the company has been busy since the lawsuits were dropped. For instance, new easements have been negotiated with Union Pacific Railroad, whose tracks bisect the property between Highway 101 and Miramar Beach. Caruso said those negotiation took months, but are now on record with the county.

Caruso was also required to document the property for historical values. About a dozen derelict cottages, which some county officials maintained had historical value, remain on the property. As a condition of approval for the project, the cottages could be retrieved by anyone interested in saving them.

Caruso Affiliates spokesman Matt Middlebrook said the company has begun the process of allowing interested parties remove the buildings from the site, but the undertaking has been time consuming.

“The permitting process takes time, and so it could be a number of months before that process is actually complete and cottages are relocated,” Middlebrook said in an e-mail to Noozhawk.

Several parties are seeking permits to relocate five of the cottages, and Caruso’s statement said the company would like to see them gone by April 1.

Caruso also acknowledged that community members were concerned about the “site’s appearance and condition.”

“It’s unfortunately a shuttered hotel, plain and simple,” he said. “It’s been that way for 10 years, three of which have been under our ownership. To that end, we have tried to be diligent in keeping the site clean and responding to concerns as they arise.”

Caruso Affiliates is still committed to the project, has spent $4.1 million on the property this year, and it isn’t for sale, according to the statement.

“Trust me; I share your frustration about a lack of movement on the site,” Caruso said in the statement. “We’ll get there; not tomorrow, but hopefully sooner rather than later. Your support for an extension is critical to keep this project alive. It needs to be approved quickly and without conditions or politics.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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