Monday, March 19 , 2018, 8:24 am | Fair 41º


Local News

Montecito Planning Commission Delays Decision on Miramar Resort

Developer Rick Caruso of Caruso Affiliated frustrated by panel's lack of action on 16-acre project

Supporters of building the new Miramar Beach Resort & Bungalows in Montecito were dealt a tough blow Monday when the Montecito Planning Commission voted to delay final approval into the new year — at the earliest.

The move was met with disbelief by the project's developers, who let the commissioners know that after eight years of waiting, they did not intend on making any more major changes to plans.

After an all-day public hearing, the commission unanimously agreed to postpone a decision on the Montecito resort’s most recent plans until Jan. 21, requesting additional information on parking, water supply and more.

Developer Rick Caruso of Caruso Affiliated, which bought the property in 2007, had hoped to begin building in June 2015, with completion two years later.

Company officials said the delay could push an opening into 2018 — a timeframe that could affect the more than $200 million in financing the firm has already raised for the project.

Throughout the hearing, the developers emphasized the scaled-back design for the 16-acre parcel overlooking Miramar Beach and the Pacific Ocean.

The privately held real estate company revealed those revamped project plans in August, featuring 170 guest rooms instead of 186, including 27 oceanfront rooms and suites, and a freestanding presidential suite.

Caruso Affiliated received initial project approval in 2008, and revised plans — approved in 2011 — allowed the company to demolish the existing hotel in 2012.

“This commission has worked hard and we have worked hard,” Caruso said Monday. “We’re not going to change this project at all. My choice would be to build the project you’ve already approved, which will have much more impact. What I can’t afford to do is be in limbo.”

The original Miramar Beach Hotel was established in the late 1880s as one of the first beachside hotels in California, but has remained vacant since 2000. 

The new design adds an oceanfront restaurant and a tweaked Miramar Club to the property, which will boast meandering pedestrian walkways, an intimate garden, and 68 new public parking spaces along Jameson and Eucalyptus lanes.

Commissioners came to the meeting with so many reservations that the public hearing almost didn’t happen.

A late letter from the attorney of a nearby homeowner asked that a decision on the project be continued until those residents could have access to public records regarding water use, but Caruso and members of the public compelled the commission to move forward.

“It’s been a long road,” Caruso said. “We’ve had the best of markets. We’ve had the worst of markets. We are ready to get started, one way or another.”

Representatives from the Montecito Fire Protection District, Montecito Sanitary District and the Montecito Water District assured the commission they could provide service.

“We’ll have water for the project,” said Tom Mosby, water district general manager. “Again, it will be subject to change, depending on the water restrictions in the future.”

The Miramar is an existing customer, Mosby said, and the resort would be subject to the same fines as other local hotels that go over water supply.  

Matt Middlebrook, Caruso’s executive vice president of development, said the firm was 100 percent ready to move forward with financing, and after years of hearing residents’ concerns to reduce rooms, visual impacts and water usage.

The developer also recently agreed to limit the number of beach club memberships to 200 for the first year instead of 300, allowing time to see whether parking was an issue.

Public access to the beach will be maintained, he said, except during small events.

Nearly all of the 25 public speakers were in support of the project and its positive economic impacts, including more than a dozen locals who live next door to it.

“We need the taxes; we need the revenue,” one neighbor said. “We live in uncertain times.”

Local environmental organization Heal the Ocean was also in favor of the project, but policy analyst James Hawkins asked for the opportunity to review documents dealing with drainage.

Liz Hogan, who lives on Miramar Avenue, said she loves the project, but wondered if residential permits or other options could deter people from parking on her street.

The attorney for the couple requesting the last-minute water information noted the resort was “significantly under parked,” especially considering that beach-club memberships were for entire families.

All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church Senior Warden Chip Nichols raised concerns about the resort’s two-story buildings looking down into the nearby church’s parish preschool and another outdoor gathering space, along with hesitation related to a church parking lot that would share an entrance with Miramar valet lots.

“That to us is a health-and-safety concern,” said Nichols, who added he did support the project. “We have little kids in that area.”

Comments caused commissioners to talk through a series of scenarios involving parking and turnarounds on nearby streets.

Will Robertson of the county Public Works Department said he was confident parking on Jameson Lane and elsewhere would be adequately worked out before construction began — a condition of approval.

“We have every intention of complying with public works requests,” Middlebrook said. “It is far, far off in the future.”

Commissioner Michael Phillips was worried about parking, saying he preferred the underground lots proposed in plans approved in 2011.

“If you are asking us to do dramatic rework, you might as well take a vote because we can’t do it,” Middlebrook said, noting the firm took a year and spent $1.5 million on the revised plans. “That is not an option for us to come back with that.”

Caruso said his firm has done what the commission asked — coming up with a less intensive design — and he threatened to begin building based on the larger plans approved three years ago.

Commission vice chair J’Amy Brown tried to interrupt his passionate speech multiple times.

“We do want to build this project,” she said. “I think we all want to get the best project we can.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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