Developer Jack Theimer submitted plans last Friday with Carpinteria’s powers that be to build a four-star, two-story, 162-room resort hotel complete with restaurant, pool, spa amenities, and a 10,000-square-foot conference room on a 26-acre chunk of coastal bluff-top property known as Bluffs III. The land begins at the intersection of Highway 150 and Carpinteria Avenue and extends about 2,000 linear feet up the coast toward the City of Carpinteria.
In recent years, it’s been used almost exclusively by dirt-bike racers and four-wheelers. Up until 1956, it was the fabled site of a stock-car racing track popularly known as the Thunderbowl. But since 2003, with the adoption of Carpinteria’s General Plan, the land has been zoned for a resort hotel able to accommodate as many as 222 rooms. As such, it’s probably the only undeveloped parcel of coastal bluff-top land in California so zoned.
Theimer first eyeballed the site five years ago but began sizing it up in earnest only a year ago, acquiring an option to purchase from the land’s current owners, the Burton Hancock Trust. Theimer said he envisions a full-service hotel that would “occupy a market niche right below the Biltmore” in terms of room rates and amenities. Although the design is by no means finalized, Theimer said it will “lie quiet on the land” and that many of the rooms will feature solar power, vitamin-infused water, and other health-conscious and eco-friendly features.
Carpinteria has five hotels with a total of 586 rooms, and none are in the same league when it comes to luxury as the one Theimer envisions. He has proposed underground parking for hotel guests but two smaller ancillary lots — with a combined total of 38 spaces — that would be open to the public. In addition, he’s pledged to build a major stretch of coastal trail across his property, part of the City of Carpinteria’s long-simmering plan to build a coastal trail to the Rincon.
Theimer’s plans are preliminary and conceptual in nature, designed to gauge the relative degree of community support or opposition. They are slated to go before the city’s Architectural Review Board sometime in September and the City Council later in the fall. Based on what response he gets from city officials and the public, Theimer would then submit a formal application for review. To date, word of the resort has not seeped outside Carpinteria City Hall. For example, longtime community activist/watchdog Vera Benson — with the Carpinteria Valley Association — had no inkling it was in the works. When notified, she was less than enthusiastic. “Oh God,” she moaned. “How much more can we stand?”
Benson cited Carpinteria’s notorious rush-hour traffic woes and pointed out the construction of 74 homes now taking place across the freeway from Theimer’s proposed resort. Those homes, she said, were approved, in part, to mitigate the demand generated by an approved adjoining industrial park, but that park — because of the economy — has yet to break ground. Even so, Benson had praise for Theimer’s choice of architects — the firm of Neumann Mendro Andrulaitis, which is located in Carpinteria and has done considerable pro bono work on behalf of such community efforts as the much-heralded Arts Council. While Andy Neumann has never designed a resort hotel before, he has a solid grasp of what flies in Carpinteria and is respected. “You can always talk to Andy,” Benson said. But even so, she wondered whether such a project could be compatible with Carpinteria’s much-vaunted “small-town character,” called out for protection and preservation in the city’s General Plan.
It’s not the first time a developer set his sights on Bluffs III. Seven years ago, San Luis Obispo real estate mogul John King proposed a three-story hotel, surrounded by oceans of at-grade parking, complete with a wedding chapel and RV park. He, too, took advantage of the same “trial balloon” process Theimer is now pursuing, but according to his critics at City Hall, King made no concessions to popular resistance to his “kitchen sink” approach. Ultimately, when it appeared an endangered variant of the fairy shrimp had been found on the site, King stopped pursuing his plans.
Though the shrimp that seemed poised to bedevil King turned out to not be endangered at all, there is still no shortage of environmental concerns on Bluffs III. Two natural fault lines — defined as “potentially active” — crisscross the land. There’s coastal sage scrub to worry about, as well as wetlands to protect. In response, Theimer said, he’s proposing only 162 rooms, as opposed to the 222 maximum allowed, and is building on only six of the 22 acres he controls. He will not be seeking to build anything above the city’s 30-foot height maximum, and he said it’s possible his plans might come in at 25 feet high, depending on the pitch of the roof.
When asked if he would seek a moratorium on bed-tax revenues — as Miramar developer Rick Caruso has sought — Theimer responded, “Absolutely not.” With Carpinteria feeling the fiscal crunch, the bed-tax revenues from an upscale project like Theimer’s has to look very attractive. In fact, Carpinteria voters will be asked this November if they want bed taxes on their visitors increased from 10 percent to 12. City Manager Dave Durflinger said he’s seen no figures yet as to how much money Carpinteria stood to make in bed-tax revenues should Theimer’s hotel be approved. But he did add, “The number is clearly very significant.”