After threatening to become the third successive Miramar Hotel owner to pull out of the project to restore the classic Montecito hotel, Rick Caruso has renewed his commitment following a teleconference with county staff on June 2. His hardball tactics have apparently worked. Days earlier, Caruso, who bought the property in January 2007, had been threatening to abandon his Miramar restoration efforts if he were forced to undergo a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or if he were delayed any further in pursuit of the project. As it stands, Caruso’s Miramar plan will go in front of the Montecito Planning Commission on July 16. “The project is firmly on track and all necessary information and studies are in the hands of the county,” Caruso wrote in an email to supporters on June 2. While county spokesperson William Boyer said he didn’t know the details of the conversation between county staff and Caruso’s staff, he confirmed the project is headed in the right direction for the July 16 meeting.
The fast-tracking of this project and the county’s conclusion that no EIR is necessary has been too much, however, for Michelle Gibbs, a county planner who was working with the project. Gibbs was one of the authors of the draft Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (SEIR), which the county conducted instead of a full EIR. She had asked in April to be taken off the project and gave her two weeks notice, with her last day slated for June 2.
But on May 28, she was asked to leave early with pay and escorted from the building. Gibbs will return to work at Tetra Tech, a Santa Barbara consulting firm where she worked for nine years previous to her county work. She declined to comment for this story.
Before her departure, Gibbs had raised concerns within the department about the process the Miramar project was undertaking, and, in an April 16 letter, had asked Planning and Development Deputy Director Dave Ward if she could be taken off the project. “I do not feel that I can adequately explain or defend our environmental impact analysis or policy consistency analysis to members of the public, or to decision-makers in a hearing,” she wrote in that letter. Gibbs said she felt rushed in what she was being asked to do, and in one portion of the letter she suggests Ward changed one alternative from “feasible” to “infeasible.” She also apparently didn’t want to sign her name to the SEIR.
Salud Carbajal, whose 1st District contains the Miramar project, said Gibbs contacted his office and expressed concerns about the process the project was undergoing. After meeting with his administrative assistant Eric Freidman and hearing Gibbs’s concerns, he “followed the proper whistleblower protocol” and asked the County Counsel and CEO’s office to do an internal investigation. Carbajal wouldn’t get into specifics about Gibbs’s concerns. Calls to Planning and Development staff-including Ward, Gibbs’s supervisor Anne Almy, and planner Julie Harris, who had worked as a planner on the Miramar before being taken off it-either weren’t returned or directed to Boyer, who refused to talk about Gibbs’s departure and was mum on Harris’s past removal, too. While he wouldn’t give specifics, Coast Law Group attorney Marco Gonzalez said “documents and files maintained by the county show a pointed effort to push this project through at the expense of a full investigation and public disclosure.” He expected to release more details on documents he uncovered in a public records search at a future date.
Caruso-who has moved Orange County mega malls through California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits and government processes in the past and, in recent weeks, has been mentioned in multiple Los Angeles newspaper reports as thinking about making a run for mayor of that city-was less than peachy prior to his June 2 email, putting pressure on the county to move the project forward. Caruso met with Carbajal on May 30 to discuss how to “best respond to the community” and “what it will take to keep on schedule,” according to Matt Middlebrook of Caruso Affiliated. Carbajal said Caruso had indicated that “if things don’t go well in the next few days in terms of the process, [Caruso] is likely to pull out.” Those sentiments are echoed in Caruso’s May 29 letter. “We cannot-and will not-continue to pursue this project if we face any more delays beyond July,” he wrote. “We have done about all we can do. It’s time to ‘call the question.’” In the email to Montecito residents, Caruso expressed frustration at the delay of the Montecito Planning Commission meeting, which, originally slated for January, had already been pushed back to June 10 and was being pushed back again. “The county felt it needed more time to respond thoroughly to the comments they received, and we respect that view,” he wrote. “At the same time, we feel strongly that it is finally the time to move this project forward. : We feel, and hope you agree, that enough is enough.”
The county received 99 letters in response to the project’s SEIR, about half clamoring for more review or a full EIR. While many residents and community members are fine with Caruso’s project and just want something built, others-including Heal the Ocean, the Citizens Planning Association, and land-use attorney Susan F. Petrovich of Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, and Schreck-asked for a full review and argued that Caruso’s project significantly differs from what Ian Schrager, who owned the property prior to Ty Warner, got approved in 2000. Caruso’s plans call for more grading, more paving, less landscaped acres, more retail space, and more zoning modification requests than Schrager’s. Not to examine the impacts of these changes thoroughly, Petrovich suggested, would be opening the door for a lawsuit. “If they were my client, I would’ve told them to start again from scratch right now,” said Petrovich, stressing multiple times that she, along with most calling for an EIR, supported a hotel project on the dilapidated 15-acre Miramar property. Update: Heal the Ocean director Hillary Hauser says they are not asking for a full EIR, but request that the project conform with the County’s NPDES/stormwater regulations, in keeping with HTO’s mission.
But, in an addendum to the draft SEIR, the planning and development department concluded that the draft SEIR meets the conditions of the California Environmental Quality Act and, thusly, a new EIR is not required. Staff is currently responding to the 99 letters, addressing each issue raised. Should a full EIR-which costs millions of dollars and a lot of time-be deemed necessary, Caruso is out of here. Caruso’s people feel all of the issues addressed in the dozens of letters to the county asking for an EIR were “already adequately addressed in the document. A lot of the people are just trying to delay the project,” said Middlebrook. “There’s an approved hotel there.”