Where’s the Water?

Montecito Water District Flub Could Upset Miramar Project

Rick Caruso, owner of the Miramar Hotel property
Paul Wellman (file)

Developer Rick Caruso, owner of the Miramar Hotel, and his staff are in the midst of emergency meetings with the Montecito Water District (MWD), just days before his renovation project for the Montecito hotel is slated to go in front of the Montecito Planning Commission on Wednesday, July 16. The reason for the meeting: a water district mishap that could potentially derail Caruso’s project, at least temporarily.

According to a Friday, July 11 letter from MWD General Manager Tom Mosby to County Planning and Development Deputy Director David Ward, the district erred when it informed Caruso’s team that his project wasn’t subject to Ordinance 89, which, because of a severe water shortage, had been freshly passed to restrict water distribution throughout the service district and to approach future water expansion with caution. The project was “already in receipt of a Certificate of Water Service Availability for the existing five District water meters that currently service the Miramar property,” Mosby wrote. A March 14 email from Mosby to former county planner Michelle Gibbs indicated the same thing: Mosby told her the ordinance wouldn’t affect the district’s ability to serve the Miramar.

But it turns out the April letter was issued in error, and the ordinance does in fact apply to the Miramar project, Mosby wrote on July 11, posing problems for Caruso. The ordinance would usually require a base allotment be established after looking at historical usage over a two-year period. But the historical usage on the property-the usage when the property was last run as a hotel-is thought to be only 50-acre-feet annually, less than half of the requested 117 acre-feet.

An acre-foot of water is about twice as much as an average Goleta household uses annually, and about two-thirds as much as an average Montecito household uses. It’s the equivalent of roughly 325,850 gallons of water, meaning Caruso is planning to use approximately 104,450 gallons of water per day at the Miramar.

Caruso is believed to be negotiating with MWD-which is required to provide services to residents, but not necessarily everything requested-right now to see what allocation he could receive for his project. The results of those negotiations aren’t yet known-Mosby hasn’t returned phone calls to his office placed Monday evening and Tuesday morning, and Caruso spokesman Matt Middlebrook also didn’t respond immediately to phone calls and an email seeking comment-but the water negotiation could have dramatic effects on the project. Depending on how much water Caruso is allotted, plans for his project, which calls for a 202-room hotel, multiple restaurants and pools, bungalows, a beach club, and lush landscaping, might have to be changed. County staff could also be forced to reanalyze its Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (an abbreviated environmental analysis, as opposed to a full EIR) and recirculate that document.

County Planner Anne Almy said she wasn’t sure what would result from the recent letter, but said there are a number of directions the trail could head from here, including a redesign to accommodate a lower water usage amount.

The issue is the latest in a line of concerns opponents have to Caruso’s plans, with their encompassing argument being that a full EIR should be done. They contend-with county staff emails to back up their statements-that the project is being rushed through the system because of demands from CEO Mike Brown and Caruso. Marco Gonzalez, a Coast Law Group attorney representing the Citizens Planning Association, said he believes the recent water situation makes the project infeasible. “This is a significant, unmitigable impact,” he said. “They have to do an EIR.”

Supervisor Salud Carbajal, whose 1st District contains Montecito, said this Monday evening that he first heard about the problem earlier in the day from his staffers, but didn’t know what the implications might be.

As of now, the Montecito Planning Commission will still hear the project presentation tomorrow, but any action could be delayed if the problem isn’t solved. Even so, any decision made by the Planning Commission is expected to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. Onlookers also expect that board’s decision to eventually be litigated in court by either side.


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