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Miramar Developer Wins Blessing of Montecito Association

The endorsement comes ahead of a Planning Commission meeting to consider the project. Opponents say the law is on their side.

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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 / Noozhawk photo)

Eight years of heated wrangling over a proposal to revive the long-abandoned Miramar Hotel is expected to come to a head Wednesday, when the Montecito Planning Commission will consider casting a deciding vote.

Meanwhile, Rick Caruso, the developer of the proposed 204-room hotel alongside Highway 101, scored a victory last week when Montecito’s 60-year-old homeowners association — the Montecito Association — gave his project its official blessings, after 18 months of review.

“I think by now this plan has really become the community’s plan,” Matt Middlebrook, vice president for Caruso Affiliated, said Monday.

Opponents of the project downplayed the Montecito Association’s nonbinding endorsement, saying the law is clearly on their side. The opponents also accused Caruso — a shopping center developer and potential Los Angeles mayoral candidate — of trying to buy the public’s testimony for Wednesday’s hearing by inviting supporters to attend a reception Tuesday at Birnam Wood Golf Club.

“We’re rarely surprised when homeowners groups that are wined and dined and hand-held down the path of support should end up at the hearing in support,” said Marco Gonzalez, an attorney for Coast Law Group, the Encinitas firm representing the opponents, who call themselves Citizens for Responsible Development at Miramar Beach. “We prefer instead to have the project stand on its own merits, rather than having to purchase support for our position.

“It’s a big PR campaign. We’re focused on the facts.”

Once a thriving hotel catering to celebrities and the upper middle class, the blue-roofed Miramar opened in the late 1800s but has been closed since 2000. Caruso is the third owner to try to revive the hotel. Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager gave up his quest to develop the property because of financial difficulties. He sold to hotel magnate Ty Warner, who became frustrated with the rigors of developing in Montecito and sold to Caruso a year and a half ago.

The project at 1555 S. Jameson Lane would replace the existing hotel ruins with a resort with bungalows, a spa, three restaurants, a ballroom, a beach club and two pools. (Click here to see the staff report.)

Last Thursday, to the delight of Caruso, the Montecito Association voted to recommend that the Planning Commission approve the project Wednesday without requiring him to conduct the full environmental impact report that opponents are demanding.

Unlike the Planning Commission, the Montecito Association is not an official public body, and its decisions are therefore technically toothless. Because the association includes hundreds of members, however, its recommendations tend to carry political heft.

Santa Barbara County planner Anne Almy said Monday she couldn’t recall an instance in which the commission defied the association’s recommendations, although she said that doesn’t mean it’s never happened.

“It is politically very well situated to make a large impact when it makes a recommendation on a land-use issue,” she said. “But that does not mean if it says to ‘go left’ we go left, or to ‘go right’ we go right. … They have no permitting authority.”

Meanwhile, Gonzalez argues that circumstances require Caruso to conduct an environmental impact report by law. For instance, Gonzalez said the project would put further strain on Montecito’s already overtaxed water district, noting that the unincorporated community’s water use last year exceeded the “reliable supply.”

Also problematic would be the construction noise, Gonzalez said.

“The beachfront residents are going to be subjected to pile-driving that will exceed county noise standards,” he said, adding that Caruso’s offer to put them up in a hotel for a few days isn’t good enough.

On an environmental level, Gonzalez said the opponents are concerned about possible pollution in nearby Oak Creek and the beach, and flooding. Residents, he said, also are worried about the size of the project.

“It’s going to sit like a castle on the hill,” he said.

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

Although the Caruso camp was pleased by the Montecito Association’s overall endorsement, the association didn’t embrace all facets. For instance, the 12-member board couldn’t come to a decision on whether to allow the developer to increase the allowable size of the beach club membership to 300 from 140.

Also, the association plans to relay several specific concerns to the commission, association president Bill Palladini said.

For instance, it wants a guarantee from the hotel that the 68 parking spaces it provides on Jameson and Eucalyptus lanes would be reserved for the public, and not used by hotel guests. Middlebrook said signs would be installed and the hotel would enforce the no-parking policy for guests.

As for Tuesday night’s party at the country club, Middlebrook scoffed at the idea that it amounted to a bribe, characterizing the shindig as a showing of appreciation for supporters’ diligence.

“If he’s accusing us of showing some appreciation to members of the community who have taken a lot of their own personal time to look at our proposal, provide comment and really help shape the project into something that works, then I guess we’re guilty,” he said. “I think it’s insulting for them to imply that members of Montecito can be bought by a couple of hors d’oeuvres.”

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

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