Rick Caruso made one thing clear in a conversation earlier this week with The Independent: He will not be doing any more environmental review on the Miramar hotel project. “There’s no reason,” he said. “It’s a waste of time and money.”
His statement echoed some he made immediately following the Montecito Planning Commission’s (MPC) August 6 decision to have Caruso conduct a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) regarding water supply for his hotel plans. Despite clamoring from project opponents for a full EIR, Caruso has repeatedly stated his belief that satisfactory environmental analysis had been conducted.
Caruso, who inherited an approved plan-which never had a full EIR done-when he bought the land from Ty Warner in January 2007, altered it by removing the existing buildings and grading the land, among other things. Opponents suggested the changes warranted a new EIR. Caruso’s project, which calls for a 204-room hotel with 258-seat restaurants and a 300-member beach and tennis club, also needed height and setback modifications, commissioners decided, but their main issue was with the water supply.
There was much confusion prior to the first MPC meeting as to whether the Montecito Water District would be able to adequately supply the project. District General Manager Tom Mosby vowed that it could, to a tune of 45 acre-feet per year, with any additional water charged at a higher rate. But prior letters sent by Mosby to county staff were less certain about this matter, especially in light of the limitations being placed on water use in the Montecito area. County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni suggested a SEIR would give the county better legal standing, should it be sued. Caruso said he believed Ghizzoni was “overly conservative” in his advice to the commission.
Debate was also had about whether current infrastructure could handle the Fire District’s needs should a fire occur at the Miramar. Project manager Matt Middlebrook, however, pointed out that the property has five fire hydrants and that tests had ensured that these had adequate water pressure. While 1,500 gallons per minute are needed to fight a fire, the hydrants tested produced between 1,500-3,000 gallons of water per minute, Middlebrook explained. Regardless, the commission voted for the SEIR.
The MPC requested that other issues be resolved, and Caruso said that these, as well, made his project impossible.
These include the following:
• Forego including the railroad parcel running through the property in the property’s floor area ratio, a computation used to keep project sizes down. “I’m trying to get the mass, bulk, and scale down,” Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker explained in her motion. Not including that parcel would’ve taken the plan out of compliance with the Montecito Community Plan, which dictates building procedure in the residential village.
• Eliminate all two-story buildings sited in the setbacks along South Jameson Lane.
• Reduce the height of the main building-set at 49 feet-in order to fit in with the Montecito Community Plan, which has a height limit of 38 feet.
• Build a sidewalk between proposed diagonal parking and a wall along Jameson, to increase safety of pedestrians. Caruso had agreed earlier to this.
• Eliminate the use of lights at the tennis courts. Caruso had agreed previously to shut them off an hour earlier, at 9 p.m., but this was apparently not sufficient for the commission majority.
Caruso said the direction from the commission came out of left field. “We were in front of the same exact board in January and they were complimenting it,” Caruso said. Caruso said he isn’t interested in returning to the drawing board. “We’re not going to do anything that’s going to make the project uneconomical or unviable. It’s got to make financial sense,” he said. His top priority remains to get a project approved based on what’s already been designed. Another option is selling the property. Caruso indicated he has received calls from interested parties, but he hasn’t dealt with them directly. He didn’t elaborate on who those parties were, but big-time developers Steve Wynn and Bill Marriott are both rumored to have expressed interest.
The commission didn’t make a final decision on the project as a whole, instead continuing the matter to its August 28 meeting, when it will likely be denied, opening the door for an appeal by Caruso to the Board of Supervisors, which he said he intends to do. Opponents have indicated they have the money to litigate the supervisors’ decision should it go against them.
The project comes at an interesting time for Montecito and the county in general. While the county is hurting financially, Miramar bed taxes are expected to bring in more than $1 million annually for the county, in addition to property taxes. Meanwhile, Montecito cityhood has recently been the focus of three community forums hosted by the Montecito Association. Should cityhood be achieved prior to the completion of the Miramar, the city wouldn’t have to include the project in any revenue neutrality agreement with the county, meaning it would receive all of the Miramar’s tax money. Certainly the potential to boost their bleak financial situation would be on supervisors’ minds if a project went before them.
And so it remains to be seen what will come of the site peeking over fencing next to Highway 101 at 1555 South Jameson Lane, currently home to tall grass, rats, and dilapidated buildings with fading blue roofs. There’s no question in anyone’s mind the site is an eyesore, but what, or who, will relieve the pain still is yet to be revealed.