More than five years after the project was first proposed by the Carpinteria City Council, the city is still debating whether a public parking lot and adjacent public land on Linden Avenue should be leased to a private company and made into a new hotel.
In a 3-2 vote on Monday evening, the city council decided to move forward with negotiations already in progress, voting against any additional actions to hear more public opinion — including a special advisory vote — until a draft of the project’s development is presented before the council.
The proposed project, known as the Surfliner Inn, would be a two-story hotel with 40 bedrooms, a café, two pools, and a lounge and a bar on the roof. The proposed site is the public parking lot north of the Union Pacific train tracks, at the junction of Linden Avenue and 5th Street. The current parking lot has 113 spaces, 66 of which would be removed for the hotel. To increase parking, the lot would be expanded 60 feet to the west, right up to the Carpinteria Community Garden. The plan also calls for the creation of a new public parking lot south of the train tracks, an open lot that opponents of the plan say is a vital and finite local asset.
At the heart of the conflict is whether or not the city should lease the two lots north of the tracks to a private company — 499 Linden Managers LLC — for up to 99 years, and whether putting a hotel in the most popular area of town would exacerbate traffic issues and lead to loss of downtown charm.
Seventy-five Carpinteria residents spoke during public comment against the project, and Vice Mayor Al Clark said this proposal has received more than 1,000 comments since the project was first proposed — more than any other project he’s seen in his time on the council.
City staff presented a report to the council during the meeting about various measures to collect more public input on the project, including an advisory vote. With an advisory vote, Carpinteria residents would vote in a special election on whether or not they support the plan to replace the parking lot with a hotel. This vote wouldn’t be binding; the councilmembers would use the results to gauge the public’s support of the project, but ultimately the project’s future rests in their hands.
As city councilmembers pointed out during the meeting, the advisory vote would cost approximately $75,000, and because the city is still in negotiation with the project’s developer, it would be unclear what residents were actually voting on. In comments to the council after the vote, Mayor Wade Nomura left the door open for gathering more public opinion after the council receives a draft plan for the project, which is expected after the application goes through the city planning and environmental review processes.
“I want to make sure we keep the public’s best interests at hand, realizing that we do not yet have a project that we can take a look at, [and] it hasn’t gone through the review process yet,” Nomura said. “We want to make sure that that goes forward first and foremost, so we can then present it to the public.”
But Clark argued that the advisory vote would not be about the Surfliner Inn specifically. From his view, the advisory vote should ask the public whether the two plots of public land should be sold for private use. Many who spoke during public comment agreed with Clark’s sentiment, arguing that because this is public land, residents have a right to vote on its future.
Jeff Theimer, one of the founding members behind the Surfliner Inn Project and 499 Linden Managers LLC, told the council that he wasn’t opposed to the concept of an advisory vote but that the estimated $75,000 expense should be paid by opposition groups, not taxpayers.
Numerous residents at public comment repeated the phrase that “$75,000 is a small price to pay to ensure Carpinteria follows the wishes of the majority,” a sentiment echoed by Clark later in the meeting.
Some who spoke during public comment were fiercely against the idea of building any more hotels in the area, saying it would result in overcrowding and take away from the small town charm of Carpinteria. Others said they were not against the idea of building a “boutique hotel,” such as the Surfliner Inn, if it was proposed on a private lot. But because the proposed site is public property in a congested, residential beach area, the rare open space across from the railroad tracks must be protected.
Theimer told the council that the economic and environmental reviews must move forward so that people have all the facts behind the project before any potential advisory vote. He also pointed out that as a Carpinterian resident, he has the best interests of the town at heart, and that this hotel would be no larger than the old train station located at the lot until it was demolished in 1969.
Rafael Hernandez owns seven cottages across the street from parking lot 3, on Elm Avenue and 5th Street. He condemned the Surfliner project during public comment, saying he was prepared to engage counsel to “represent and protect my interests and that of the community as a whole.”
“This hotel would have an incalculable adverse effect on all of [my properties] in terms of parking, traffic, night lights, noise, peace, and privacy. It would block the ocean breeze and southern sun as it crosses the sky. It would dominate and destroy the entire viewshed of sky and trees, and loom like some freak monster over my seven quaint cottages on 5th Street,” Hernandez said.
“We’re the landlords; you the council are the short-term custodians. Carpinterians must be heard and allowed to vote.”
Correction: This story was revised on February 28, 2021, as the city would lease, not sell, the land to the developers should the project go through; the land for an extended parking lot by the hotel would be under a lease; and it was Jeff, not Jack, Theimer who spoke.
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