WANTED: ONE MORE KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR

Many longtime residents of Montecito and Santa Barbara have fond memories of days at the Miramar, kids in tow, loaded down with beach chairs, umbrellas, pails and shovels, getting there early for a prime spot on the beach.

Generations of local children have grown up sitting at the counter of the railroad car sipping sodas and eating hot dogs, tormenting Jacques, putting a penny on the railroad tracks before the train came, swimming to the raft while parents circled their chairs for a little sun and a good chat.

Who can forget that wonderful feeling of sun-soaked, sand-covered exhaustion as they headed home in the dying sunlight to plunk exhausted children in bed?

With Ty Warner’s announcement three weeks ago of his intentions to sell the Miramar rather than endure another long drawn-out land use permitting battle, one cannot help but wonder whether those glorious days are lost forever.

What now will become of the Miramar? Is the Montecito community willing to open its arms to an owner who will return it to its glory or will this community treasure suffer death by committee?

Reflecting upon a little history might be helpful to an understanding of how we got to this place and may help us to avoid repeating our mistakes.

When Ian Schrager bought the Miramar he astutely romanced the locals with a full court press of public relations presentations and plans for a fully restored family beachside resort. His plans were embraced by the community, the local land use planning and permitting authorities and the County Supervisors, all of whom in their enthusiasm never thought to ask for a performance bond. When Mr. Schrager, in the midst of demolition, turned his attentions and financial resources elsewhere, we were left with a dilapidated eyesore for years to come.

Ty Warner came to the rescue on the promise that the existing entitlements to property development would be intact and that he would not have to “start over,” not an unreasonable request given the cost and time required to navigate the land use planning processes in Santa Barbara county. He immediately cleaned up the site, cleared the beach of debris and invested substantial money in tweaking the plans to reflect a unified design concept that bore his signature attention to detail and luxury.

Now, Mr. Warner did not become so successful by being a dummy or by doing things for purely altruistic purposes. In buying the Miramar he no doubt felt he could both help the community out and benefit himself as well. By resurrecting a popular family resort and community gathering place, he could turn it into a money-making asset, in the process garnering goodwill for his other projects.

Like every good relationship, each side must benefit for it to be successful. Alas, Mr. Warner did not receive the benefit of his bargain. Rather than things becoming easier for him in the planning process, certain decision makers decided he had overstepped his bounds and instead set out to make things harder for him, creating the “Ty Warner” standards for permit approval.

The special “Ty Warner” standards of land use permitting are distinguished by such trivia as placing limits on the number of non-hotel guest spa visits per day at the Biltmore; decrying the flowers along the Channel Drive bluff walk and bikeway as “too Disneyland”; limiting the use of bricks in crosswalks across Channel Drive and in the beach access stairway on Biltmore property because it looked too much like the Biltmore; requiring storage and cataloguing of plain wood panels from the cabanas at the Coral Casino; and the list goes on ad nauseam.

No one disputes the need for thoughtful planning and permitting processes to preserve this magnificent place, but we have lost our way when the process overwhelms and obscures the goals and when some of the decision makers pursue a personal rather than community agenda.

In this context it is not surprising Mr. Warner has elected to forgo another journey through the planning and permitting maze of Santa Barbara County on the Miramar project.

In the midst of the County’s acquiescence to recent State housing “mandates” to build 17,000-plus “affordable houses” in Santa Barbara county and recent changes to ease the rules to allow more mobile home parks and to convert agricultural lands to housing, how long will it take for the powers that be to focus on the Miramar property for these uses? What can we do as a community to fend off the loss of a beloved old beach resort?

Don’t pack up those beach chairs and umbrellas just yet for a trip to the Miramar – it’s going to take another white knight to save us after this one has been driven off.