The Rick Caruso show, fit with the biggest public relations campaign to hit the Santa Barbara County Administration Building in quite awhile, is to be continued, after the Montecito Planning Commission delayed making any decisions on Caruso’s Miramar project to August 6.
Complete with coffee and pastries to greet supporters upon arrival in the morning, as well as lunch at noon, “Miramar Now” buttons, colorful artist renderings lining the walls, and a flashy movie featuring a Frank Sinatra-like crooner singing something called “At the Beach at Miramar,” Caruso and his contingent of lawyers, planners, consultants, and interns made sure every question was answered and every need of both the commissioners and the public was met Wednesday. But the one thing he couldn’t do was convince the board to stick around long enough to make a decision Wednesday night after a nearly 11-hour hearing. Instead, after listening to presentations from Caruso, from county staff, and from more than 100 public speakers, the commissioners listed a bevy of questions they want answered by the August meeting.
And while no indication was given by the commissioners on how they might vote, and while Caruso wouldn’t speculate on any tell signs he picked up from the five, it appears Caruso will get the necessary three votes to move the project along. However, no matter the outcome, it is nearly inevitable the decision will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, and many speculate that even their decision will end up litigated by the losers.
While the number of supporters at the meeting easily outnumbered opponents, the dissenters clamored for the commissioners to demand a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) because full review hadn’t been done. But Ed Yates from the County Counsel’s office seemed to quell commissioners’ concerns - especially those of Michael Phillips - that necessary California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) legalities were met. While a full EIR was never done for the approved plan of former owner Ian Schrager, county staff had issued a negative declaration saying an EIR wasn’t necessary. With an approved negative declaration, Caruso would only have had to prepare an EIR if he made more than minor technical changes to Schrager’s plan. If there were only minor technical changes and no substantial increase in the severity of the impacts, as was the opinion of county staff, then an addendum could be done, the option chosen in this case. The question that remains of the commissioners is whether they believe the changes Caruso proposes are more than minor technical changes.
Here’s a look at some of some specifics for Shrager and Caruso’s respective takes on the Miramar.
- Total net floor area: 137,711 sq ft.
- Total parking spaces: 599
- Guestrooms: 213
- Employee dwellings: 4
- Grading: 10,000 cubic yards of cut, 6,000 cubic yards of fill, 4,000 cubic yards of export
- Total number of restaurant seats: 258
- Potential number of beach and tennis club members: 140
- Total net floor area: 169,937 sq. ft.
- Total parking spaces: 671
- Guestrooms: 204
- Employee dwellings: 4
- Grading: 36,300 cubic yards of cut, 46,100 cubic yards of fill, 10,000 cubic yards of import
- Total number of restaurant seats: 258
- Potential number of beach and tennis club members: 300
How floor area ratios are determined, what limits are in place for the ballroom usage, and an accurate employee count are just some of the things asked of county staff by the commission.
One of the big questions going into Wednesday’s meeting was water. In a July 11 letter to county staff, Montecito Water District (MWD) General Manager Tom Mosby reneged on an earlier letter sent to Caruso saying he was covered, despite the fresh Ordinance 89, which was designed to limit water use in the thirsty MWD. This sent Caruso’s people scurrying, and meetings on Monday with Mosby seemingly resolved the issue, although details remain vague and unknown. While Mosby said MWD wouldn’t commit to the 117 acre feet that county staff had suggested the district would be providing for the project, he also said that much wasn’t needed. “The actual water use will be much lower,” he said, with Caruso later explaining that the amount would only be needed if his hotel were 100 percent occupied 365 days a year. Mosby will be looking at similar use allocations at places like the Biltmore to reach a conclusion on how much water is needed at the Miramar. “The real goal is that they install water-efficient fixtures,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The other big issue to be determined is whether the project is consistent with the Montecito Community Plan. With building height variances on several buildings, including the largest, which would tower 49 feet above ground - 14 feet above the allowable amount - and a lot of grading going on, residents and commissioners alike questioned whether county staff’s assessment that the plan was consistent with the Community Plan was accurate. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and husband Brad Hall, whose property neighbors the Miramar property to the east, were on hand in opposition to Caruso’s plan, pointed out the project didn’t fit within the Community Plan and filling in the floodplain would be a mistake. Louis-Dreyfus, famous for her nine years on Seinfeld, took a line out of one of the more famous episodes of the show to emphasize her point. “This design needs shrinkage,” she said. “Please give us shrinkage, and that’s no joke.” Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker said, “Right now I don’t agree with staff’s finding it’s consistent with the community plan, but I’m willing to be convinced:I’m struggling with the size, bulk and scale, and height of the public buildings.”
Caruso, who said he loses $1.5 million each month the project sits untouched, bought the property in January 2007 from Ty Warner with plans to quickly breeze through the process and get construction going on the site. But he altered the approved project, forcing him to take his plans back through the Montecito planning process. Warner, who bought the Miramar from Schrager, couldn’t garner the necessary support to get the project built. Schrager, whose plans were approved in 2000, ran out of money to build. “If it was easy, everyone would have done it,” Caruso said after the meeting. “If it was easy, Ty Warner would have done it. But I’m confident we’re going to get through it.” Speaking to suggestions that the project has been rushed, Caruso said, “We understand we have a process to go through. There’s no rushing going on.”