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In Reversal, Caruso Expresses Optimism about Miramar Timeline

County officials assure developer Montecito Planning Commission will take up hotel project July 16.

As part of Caruso Affiliated’s plans for the Miramar Hotel, the largely abandoned property would be redeveloped as a bungalow resort with a spa, three restaurants, two pools and a beach club. (Lou Fontana photo / Noozhawk)

After threatening to walk away from the Miramar Hotel because of Santa Barbara County’s delays, the man who plans to redevelop and reopen the long-shuttered Montecito landmark said Monday that the beachfront project is back on track.

Los Angeles shopping center developer Rick Caruso sent out an optimistic e-mail Monday after a teleconference with county Chief Executive Mike Brown.

“The county should be applauded for its commitment to a fair process for the consideration of this project,” Caruso wrote.

The project would bulldoze the remnants of the century-old hotel that has gone to rack and ruin alongside Highway 101 after its closure in 2000. Replacing it would be a resort with bungalows, a spa, three restaurants, a ballroom, a beach club and two pools.

Project opponents, who include TV writer and producer Brad Hall, husband of actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, are worried about traffic, flooding, noise and the size of the project at 1555 S. Jameson Lane. They say a project of this magnitude should require a full environmental impact review to determine how the area would be affected by the development.

Caruso’s e-mail Monday stood in stark contrast to his response last week to the county’s decision to postpone the June 10 Montecito Planning Commission hearing on the Miramar until mid-July. County officials said the large volume of public comment on the project required more time to assess.

In his Friday e-mail, Caruso seemed to imply he was at his wit’s end, noting that the hearing had been delayed three times since March.

“Enough is enough,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Caruso Affiliated vice president Matt Middlebrook warned last week that if the county decides to require Caruso to conduct a full EIR, as the critics have sought, the company would drop the project.

On Monday, however, Caruso’s e-mail struck a celebratory tone.

“We are very pleased to tell you that we are heading toward a hearing on the project before the Montecito Planning Commission on July 16th without further delays,” he wrote. “The project is firmly on track and all necessary information and studies are in the hands of the county. Thanks to all of you who contacted the county in the past few days expressing your support for the project.”

Reached on Monday, Middlebrook, who took part in the teleconference, said that as he understood it, the county staff is not going to recommend an EIR.

“They assured us they had the information necessary and had all the documents to proceed forward,” he said.

County spokesman William Boyer said he couldn’t comment on any recommendation.

“Our recommendation will be posted as part of the staff report for the agenda on the July meeting,” he said. “It’s premature right now for me to be able to tell you about that.”

Meanwhile, critics calling themselves Citizens for Responsible Development at Miramar Beach have retained Coast Law Group of Encinitas to explore possible legal options.

On Monday, Coast Law Group attorney Marco Gonzalez described Caruso’s letters to the public as “spin.”

“As Caruso sends out e-mails and does press releases bashing anyone who’s opposed to him, to us it really doesn’t get to the core issues, and the core issues are our comments,” Gonzalez said. “We have some very serious problems with the process as it has gone on. We still believe that at the end of the day, either the Board of Supervisors or the courts in California will require Caruso to do an EIR. … Until then, it’s all just rhetoric, it’s all PR, it’s all spin.”

Asked whether a county decision against an EIR would result in a lawsuit, Gonzalez declined to comment.

The project’s supporters say the beachside blight needs to go. They also welcome the public amenities the new resort would bring, such as new pathways to the beach and free public parking. And they insist the opponents are a vocal minority.

As of Friday, however, county officials said that of the roughly 100 letters they’d received about the project, about 50 were in support and 50 were in opposition.

Once a thriving hotel that catered to the famous and middle-class alike, the blue-roofed Miramar opened in the late 1800s but has been closed since 2000. In 1998, Ian Schrager, a co-founder of New York’s Studio 54, paid $30 million to purchase the property from the estate of June G. Outhwaite, whose family had owned it since 1939. Financial difficulties forced Schrager to shut down the project in 2000, and he later sold it to hotel magnate Ty Warner for $40 million. Warner, owner of the nearby Four Seasons Biltmore Resort and San Ysidro Ranch, ultimately decided the rigors of renovating another hotel project in Montecito were too much. Warner sold the property to Caruso for an undisclosed sum a year-and-a-half ago.

Caruso has said he hopes to reopen the Miramar by 2010.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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