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Local News

Montecito Planning Commission Approves Miramar Project

The question now is whether anyone will appeal the decision within the 10-day window.

It took about the equivalent of a 40-hour workweek, but the Montecito Planning Commission — at the end of its fourth daylong hearing on the matter — on Wednesday officially approved plans to rebuild the long-abandoned Miramar Hotel along Highway 101.

Now, the question is whether anyone will appeal the decision to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors within the 10-day window.

In any event, Wednesday’s 4-1 decision is a giant leap toward Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso’s goal of razing the old Miramar — a rotting cluster of dilapidated cottages that have sat empty for nearly a decade — and replacing it with a five-star resort in the same name.

“We’re here, we’re done, I’m very happy about it,” said Caruso, a billionaire developer of shopping centers who said he has never experienced such a lengthy public process. “Hopefully we can resolve any differences we have with the few opponents we have.”

During the commission’s marathon discussions, which began in mid-July, the five commissioners and Caruso’s team of about 10 people grappled with issues of water supply, sewage, construction noise, traffic, flooding, project size, building design, flooding and the like.

Meanwhile, the project has been contentious, and most of the meetings drew dozens of supporters and opponents, although the room was notably less full on Wednesday.

It also has been a roller-coaster ride, nearly dying in early August when the Planning Commission decided Caruso should conduct the kind of thorough study he has long said is unnecessary: a partial Environmental Impact Review. A few weeks later, in late August, the commission reversed that decision, and it became apparent that the project probably would happen.

Opponents have long held that the proposed development — one of the largest ever in Montecito — should require a full EIR, which is a thorough study required by law when a preliminary assessment has determined that a project will have a significant effect on the environment. Caruso did embark on a partial EIR focusing on historic resources early on, but opponents were not satisfied.

Caruso, the third man to own the property that has been abandoned since 2000, has been unwilling to do any additional EIRs because he believes that all of the necessary studies already have occurred. A similar proposal at the same site under the owner who abandoned it, Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager, already had received county clearance. As such, Caruso, along with county staff members, has argued that an EIR of any sort is unnecessary. Caruso has said it also would be cost-prohibitive.

Throughout the process, the local nonprofit Citizens Planning Association has been a leading opponent. After Wednesday’s meeting, the group’s executive director, Naomi Kovacs, expressed disappointment but said the decision on whether to appeal rests in the hands of her board of directors.

“(The commission) didn’t pay adequate attention to some serious concerns,” she said, specifying areas such as flooding, water supply and noise. She added: “I do think that this process has given us a better project. Caruso has made some concessions.”

In an effort to better embrace the spirit of the old Miramar’s cottage style, Caruso in late August dropped the room count to 192 from 204. He also shrunk the height of the main building by 4 feet, to 38 feet above the curb line, and expanded the buffer separating the project from South Jameson Lane, among other things.

Flooding remains a concern for some opponents, as the plan involves filling in a floodplain on the property between Highway 101 and the ocean, in an area that has flooded before.

Heightening their concerns has been an odd expression of doubt within the county’s own staff.

Sometime in December, the county Flood Control District’s engineering manager, Jon Frye, wrote in an internal e-mail that the initial hydrology study performed by the Caruso-hired engineering firm, Penfield & Smith, contained a “fatal flaw.”

Opponents seized on this, noting in August that the county never included this detail in its final report.

In late September, the county attempted to clarify the matter. Tom Fayram, the deputy director of Santa Barbara County’s Public Works, sent a memo to the attorneys of the Citizens Planning Association saying the “fatal flaw” issue brought up in December had been resolved, namely by how Penfield & Smith conducted a subsequent study in March using a different methodology.

However, attorneys for the Citizens Planning Association remained unconvinced Wednesday, saying Fayram’s explanation in late September conflicted with a letter written by one of Penfield & Smith’s engineers shortly after the March study. In the letter, the engineer defended his use of the methodology that, according to the attorneys for Citizens Planning Association, Frye considers fatally flawed.

Ultimately, though, commissioners on Wednesday were unimpressed with the opponents’ “fatal flaw” memos. Although they acknowledged that the general area — which includes several creeks — poses major flooding hazards, the commissioners agreed with the county staff’s assertion that the added flooding threat created by Miramar’s project was a mere drop in the bucket of the larger floodplain.

“I believe there needs to be more studies, but it is not the applicant’s problem,” Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker said. “This is the County of Santa Barbara’s problem, and it’s going to be a health and safety liability.”

The lone no vote on Wednesday was cast by Commissioner Jack Overall, whose primary concerns throughout the discussion have centered on parking and traffic. Specifically, Overall said he worries that the portion of the plan allowing the hotel to host, on average, about five events a day — with a maximum of 500 people per event — could create traffic woes.

“People who come to the Miramar are there for a few days,” he said. “People in the community are here all the time.”

At some points on Wednesday, the commission — as it had in the prior three meetings — went small bore, discussing, for instance, whether to allow the Beach and Tennis Club to have 150 or 200 members, and prompting a scold from Caruso himself.

“We’re micromanaging this thing down to a point where we’ll never get this thing done,” he said. “Let me operate this thing.”

In the end, the commission decided to allow 200 members, with the provision that the hotel can add 100 more if a follow-up study conducted no more than 18 months after completion of construction demonstrates that the Miramar hasn’t caused any significant parking and traffic problems.

After the final vote, Commissioner Sue Burrows thanked Caruso for “giving us the shrinkage that we needed,” making reference to a comment uttered this summer by the project’s most famous opponent, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose half-joking use of the double-entendre hearkened back to a well-known Seinfeld episode.

“I’ve lived in Montecito for 40 years,” Burrows said, “and I’ve never seen the community so engaged as they were in this process.”

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

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