After four Montecito Planning Commission meetings totaling enough hours to fill a work week, developer Rick Caruso has a project – for now.

Another meeting that started at 9 a.m. carried on to 6 p.m. Wednesday, with Caruso delivering on the promises he made at the last commission meeting in August, and the commission giving the okay to Caruso’s Miramar project with more than four scores of conditions he must follow.

After spending more than 35 hours over two-and-a-half months on the Miramar Hotel, the commission seemed almost sad to see the project move forward. “This is letting go,” chair Bob Bierig said at the conclusion of the meeting, which saw the commission approve the five-star hotel project 4-1.

Despite Wednesday’s events, an appeal on the approval of the highly controversial project is anticipated. Naomi Kovacs, executive director of the Citizens Planning Association, said she would have to bring the matter before her board to make a decision on an appeal. Disappointed in the vote, she had argued that adequate environmental review of the project has yet to be done, and thus the county doesn’t know the real impacts of the project.

Opponents have 10 calendar days to file an appeal (the deadline is October 20 at 5 p.m.), but Caruso hopes to smooth things over with opponents to avoid any further delay resulting from possible stops at the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors or even in court. However, his refusal to spend the months and millions of dollars it would take to do an Environmental Impact Report makes it unlikely the two sides will be able to meet in the middle.

Caruso, who has some massive projects in Los Angeles County – many of which were the proverbial “talk of the town” when they opened and remain hot spots today – said he has never spent more time in front of one governing board on one issue. “This is the record,” he said after the October 8 meeting.

While the commission spent all day nitpicking at the finest of details, they ended up not far from the beginning, only making slight changes to the project’s conditions of approval.

The total project will have a total net floor area of 164,849 square feet, 27,138 more than former owner Ian Schrager’s plan, which was approved by the County Planning Commission in 1999. All the existing buildings will be demolished, and the project will have 551 parking spaces, most being underground. In terms of grading, Caruso’s project will have 36,300 cubic yards of cut, 46,100 cubic yards of fill, and 10,000 cubic yards of import.

At the previous meeting, Caruso agreed to drop the number of rooms from 204 to 192 and the square footage down by 6,655. He reduced the single-story height of the main building along South Jameson Lane by 18 inches and the two-story height between two and four feet. He added a sidewalk outside the property’s wall on South Jameson Lane to ensure that visitors can walk safely onto the property. Also, no building larger than one-story sits within a setback.

Commissioners belabored several specifics such as drainage, traffic circulation, whether the number of parking spaces was adequate, how many beach and tennis club members should be allowed, and how those members would park at the site. They were hesitant to trust expert analysis submitted to them – both by county staff and by Caruso’s hired hands. “You just can’t predict how everything will operate,” Commissioner Jack Overall said.

After rounds and rounds of analyzing and discussing, the group seemed to realize that they thought analysis and study done by those experts was sufficient, but still had a hard time putting their trust in that information. As Commissioner Michael Phillips – who pushed engineers and experts with his questioning throughout the day – put it, “We understand the studies and think they’re legitimate, but we’re not going to let [Caruso] enjoy [building a project] to that level.” He and three others, however, eventually did.

It appeared after the second meeting in front of the commission in August that Caruso was going to come up a bit short – or a bit too large, in terms of the project – and that he might back out of building anything at the site at 1555 S. Jameson Ln. But Caruso’s team went back to the drawing board, made adjustments, and came back to the commission in round three with a project a little more in tune with what the commissioners had in mind. Caruso left that meeting much more content, and after some touching up Wednesday, he had a project.

“It’s been a long process,” he said, “but we’re here, we’re done and we’re happy.”

Caruso spends about $1 million a month related to the Miramar, whether it be on security and maintenance, taxes, or attorneys and planners working on the project. He will put in roughly $300 million on the project he suggested at the meeting yesterday, with lenders lined up to help. The recent economic troubles of the country has caused him concern-“It complicates things,” he said-but he indicated bankers were “very supportive” and still on board. “We’ll figure our way through it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Caruso is running into environmental review problems relating to a different project of his. Last week, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge upheld an earlier decision he had made regarding the adequacy of an EIR done on Caruso’s plans for an upscale mall – his specialty – outside the Santa Anita Park race track in Arcadia. The judge, whose decision could be appealed, found 11 deficiencies in the EIR. The Arcadia City Council had approved an 830,000-square-foot outdoor mall, but the manager of a shopping mall next door filed a petition, as did a community group, alleging the EIR was flawed. The judge’s decision means changes to the EIR will have to go through the nine to 12 month public process again, then back to the city council and the judge for Arcadia.


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