Coalition of Local Power Players Casts Itself as Montecito Association Watchdog

While Ty Warner considers a number of suitors to purchase his Miramar Hotel, a coalition of his heartiest supporters is bandying to bring about change in local land use practices. The fledgling Voices of Montecito, which now counts more than 60 members, has tasked itself to, among other endeavors, reform County planning procedures by relaxing restrictions and making project approvals easier for applicants.

The group’s mission also involves restructuring of the Montecito Association and the Montecito Planning Commission, both of which members claim are most responsible for delaying projects and creating difficult conditions for businessmen like Warner to work in.

“We’re not saying that we want to eliminate the Montecito Association or the Montecito Planning Commission because they’re evil,” said Lee Luria, a Montecito philanthropist and one of the new bloc’s leading members. “We’re saying that they need to change because it is too difficult to get projects approved in a timely manner.”

Montecito Association President Bob Collector would not comment.

Voices of Montecito members are organizing a town hall meeting for later this month or in early January to discuss changes that need to take place. They haven’t identified a location yet, but are considering either Montecito Hall or the Montecito Union School auditorium.

Discussed at the meeting will be ways to make planning procedures less burdensome on applicants, encouraging First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal to reorder the Montecito Planning Commission, and pressuring the Montecito Association, a private homeowners organization, to stop reviewing land use matters. Members said the Montecito Association and Planning Commission serve too similar of functions.

“I know that if you sit around and gripe, nothing gets done,” said Susan Colin, one of the members. “I’m not mad at anybody; I know these people are volunteers, but I also know that the system is broken.”

Carbajal said Tuesday that he hadn’t met with anyone from the group, but he encouraged members to make their opinions fully known. “I welcome all the people of Montecito to be engaged and get involved,” he said. “I am open to being inclusive.”

The emergence of this coalition pits a number of well-heeled and influential individuals versus one of Montecito’s most venerated associations, a 58-year-old institution responsible for staunch volunteerism and avid land use study and decision making.

The Montecito Planning Commission is a five-member County panel created nearly four years ago to review and decide on planning projects.

Voices of Montecito lists a number of major players associated with the group, including the racecar legend, Andy Granatelli, and developer Wayne Siemens. It also combines members from other organized groups supporting Ty Warner, including Complete Our Renovation Expeditiously, or CORE, a cadre of people pushing for the remodel of the Coral Casino.

The formation of Voices was only a couple months ago, but its real roots seem to trace back to late 2004, when Warner was proposing public use of his health spa at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel.

The Montecito Association had wanted to restrict public use of the spa, fearing the use would lead to traffic increases. The Montecito Planning Commission supported that stance, a decision that incensed supporters of the project.

“I sat there and I couldn’t even believe what I was watching,” said Mary Belle Snow, a Voices of Montecito member and Toro Canyon resident. “It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. How can you tell a private business owner how many visits he can have at his spa?”

In February 2005, the Board of Supervisors overturned the commission’s decision and imposed looser restrictions on public use.

Distaste for the Association and Planning Commission lingered through the Coral Casino hearings of 2005, was bolstered during the recent Biltmore Seawall battle and has fully peaked now that Warner has decided to sell the Miramar. The new group is quickly acquiring new members who embrace seemingly libertarian land use philosophies.

“We’ve got to stop this whacked invasion of private property rights,” Snow said.

By Tuesday afternoon, as the nascent group was still collecting new members and strategizing its positions, it was still unclear how far it would go to accomplish its goals. Members said immediately they weren’t in favor of eliminating either the Association or Planning Commission. They were also against pressuring the Association financially, by urging people to cancel their memberships, for instance. Snow, who canceled her Association membership almost two years ago, said “we don’t think that’s a practical or smart position to take.”

Westmont Approval Leads to Double Appeal

Project Opponents Indicate They Will Sue If They Have to

Opponents of the Westmont College development appealed a Montecito Planning Commission approval of the project last week and offered the most tangible indication to date about how far they’re willing to take their fight. At the same time, Westmont cast its own appeal in a more narrowly focused objection to conditions tied to project approval.

The neighbors’ appeal, filed by the Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion on Thursday, hinges on three key points – that the approval was inconsistent with the Montecito Community Plan; that the project’s environmental impact report, or EIR, is faulty; and that the Montecito Planning Commission had received “bad legal advice” from County attorneys.

Laura Collector, a principal member of the opposing coalition, said Monday that the planning commission’s approval last month had ignored the size and bulk of development proposed by the college and didn’t do enough to protect neighbors from construction-related impacts. She suggested commissioners should have divided the project into sections that could be reviewed individually.

“I think if we had broken down the project into separate parts, this might have been easier,” Collector said.

Collector also took aim at the project’s environmental impact report, a lengthy planning document prepared by County staff. She said if the document had been more “succinct and readable,” commissioners could “probably have made a better decision.”

She saved some criticisms for County lawyers and attorneys, whom she claimed had pressured planning commissioners into approving the project.

“Time and time again, County counsel seems to keep saying that Westmont already had an approved project, which we think is dead wrong,” Collector said.

Dianne Black, the County Planning & Development assistant director, though, doesn’t agree, saying that the more than 60 hours of hearing time devoted to the project in a nine-month period allowed the commission enough time to render its decision. She said planning staff had recommended that the commission approve the project, but she denied that they imposed any pressure.

“The Montecito Planning Commission has certainly acted independently in the past and I think they did that again in this instance,” Black said.

Meanwhile, project opponents gave their most unequivocal indication about their long-term intentions when Collector said her group would file a lawsuit if its demands weren’t met.

“All we can do is keep saying what we’ve been saying all along,” she said, “and if the right County venues don’t want to listen to us, then we’ll go somewhere else – probably in court.”

Collector said she’s confident a majority of people in Montecito feel the same way. She also said she’s willing to restart the approval process because it’s “imperative to go back” and get it right.

“I think everybody in Montecito will be outraged once this construction begins,” she said. “They’ll hear the sound of dump trucks rumbling up the streets and wonder how this ever got approved.”

Westmont’s appeal takes issue with two conditions of approval, one dealing with traffic caps on Cold Spring Road, the main byway to the college, and another involving student parking. College officials said Monday the appeal had nothing to do with the opposition and that they “would have appealed anyway.”

Cliff Lundberg, Westmont’s executive vice president, said he was “very pleased that the approval was unanimous” but that the conditions could cause problems for the school years ahead. He said the condition to limit daily traffic on Cold Spring Road to 3,355 trips instead of the proposed 3,500 was “unnecessary and without direct connection” to the environmental impact report, which states allowed thresholds.

Lundberg criticized the condition that forces students to put a decal on their car if they don’t have a parking permit. The condition is meant to track how many students are parking off-campus, but Lundberg said officials have only counted an average of four instances per semester where kids have parked in the off-campus neighborhood.

“This condition would require us to send a letter to all parents letting them know their kids aren’t allowed to park at school” when they’re already prohibited to park on campus without a permit, Lundberg said. “It sends a mixed message and doesn’t look very good for Westmont.”

Added Ron Cronk, the school’s senior advisor: “It undermines the credibility of our college.”

An appeal hearing before the County Board of Supervisors won’t take place before February 2007. As the proceedings near, one question that arises is how much time will the five supervisors be able to devote to Westmont.

The Montecito Planning Commission, whose monthly caseload is significantly lighter than the Board of Supervisors, discussed the Westmont project 10 times dating back to February. While the County Board of Supervisors often continues projects to a later date, Mrs. Black said it was “uncommon” for the board to hear one project so many times and in such a limited amount of time.

Coral Casino Lawsuit Meets in Court of Appeals

Lawyers representing Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts, LLC and Cynthia Ziegler met in Court of Appeals on Monday to debate the fate of Ty Warner’s $65-million remodel of the Coral Casino.

Attorneys for both sides presented their arguments and Warner officials said they don’t anticipate receiving a written decision for at least a month.

Ms Ziegler has sued the rehabilitation of the club claiming construction would irreparably damage architecturally sensitive portions of the nearly 70-year-old facility.

Warner representatives said last week they expect the club to reopen in July of 2007 and the new second-story restaurant to open shortly thereafter.