While Rick Caruso waits for his Miramar Hotel project to head to the Montecito Planning Commission on August 6 for the second half of a marathon meeting to decide its future (he bided his time by throwing a birthday bash for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday), some are questioning whether the Montecito Association-long known for being a community watchdog-is being diligent in protecting the unique qualities of the community, questioning specifically whether the Miramar has received adequate scrutiny. The project’s opponents, including the Citizens Planning Association and even some current association boardmembers, have also been raising substantial questions, including exceptions made to the Montecito Community Plan.
Past Montecito Association president-and former Independent columnist-J’Amy Brown, who had the Coral Casino, Westmont College, and Music Academy projects crawl through the county pipeline on her watch, said the association usually holds steadfast to the community plan, but, “They haven’t done their job as it’s been done historically.” For example, while the community plan specifies height limits of 38 feet, the main Miramar building is 48 feet tall, yet the association ignored the discrepancy. She said, nonetheless, that she favors Caruso building on the property. Association Land Use Committee member Dick Thielscher said the project “does not meet any of the requirements of the community plan. Most of us will not visit the hotel, but we’ll have to look at it for years.”
A different project-one that would replace the Union 76 gas station at the intersection of Coast Village and Olive Mill roads with a three-story complex with eight condos and 5,000 square feet of retail space-is viewed by some as another instance of association inconsistency, especially when compared to the Miramar project. The all-volunteer association doesn’t usually review projects along Coast Village Road, since it is part of the City of Santa Barbara. But because the project directly borders Montecito on three sides, Association President Bill Palladini explained, his Board of Directors sent a letter to the City Planning Commission and City Council opposing the building’s height. The association wasn’t opposed to the project, Palladini said, but saw problems with its height, even though the proposed 39 feet was well within Coast Village Road’s 45-foot height limit.
“You have to consider the fact that they were two different projects,” said Palladini, pointing out the City Council agreed the Coast Village Road project height might be excessive and block views. He compared that to the Miramar, where in exchange for the underground parking, the height variance is a reasonable tradeoff.
Palladini disputed talk of the association not taking a close enough look at the Miramar project, citing the numerous meetings it held. But it seems the association’s board also disregarded many of the cautions its executive director (and former county planner) Victoria Greene made in a Miramar “backgrounder.” Association Boardmember Darlene Bierig said she believes the organization made a mistake. “In the past, the association has really been the protectors of the [Montecito Community] Plan,” she said. “I don’t know how you evaluate a project unless you have a set of standards.”
Miramar opponents under the Citizens Planning Association (CPA) umbrella are ramping up efforts to oppose the project, saying it needs a full environmental impact report (EIR). (The Montecito Association, for the record, decided a new EIR is not required). CPA has taken out a full-page advertisement in both this and last week’s editions of The Independent encouraging people to write the county with comments and to “demand the best and most appropriate project be approved.” Their efforts may come too late for this stage of the process, however, as the Planning Commission will accept public comment only until noon on Friday, August 1. But opponents need not worry about getting a chance to get a word in. Regardless of the commission’s decision-indications are that it will approve Caruso’s project with a number of conditions-both sides have stated they will appeal. And while Caruso and the county have said they believe they have a legally defensible position, project opponents have pointed out they have plenty of money for a lawsuit.