Miramar at MPC

During a nearly 11-hour meeting last Wednesday, July 16, LA developer Rick Caruso and his team presented plans for the 204-guestroom Miramar Beach Resort resurrection to the Montecito Planning Commission. Complete with a nostalgia-inducing film featuring former bellman Grover Barnes along with several longtime residents (including Academy Award winner Eva Marie Saint and her husband, writer-director Jeffrey Hayden) sharing Miramar experiences, the meeting fleshed out many issues but to no avail: a second hearing has been scheduled for August 6 despite a plea for a decision from the developer. Dozens of Montecito residents were present throughout the meeting to show their support, while seventeen spoke in opposition to the project. Several key issues surfaced, as they have in the last 17 months since Caruso has owned the property.

Water

With the Montecito Water District proposing a new rate structure and recently informing the community of a possible water shortage emergency, opposition to the Miramar project has focused its attention on water availability. Tom Mosby, General Manager of MWD was at the hearing to set the record straight. “The district issued a certificate of water service availability, a can and will serve, on May 11, 2007, and it continues to stand and honor this commitment,” Mosby said. He went on to say that the district is working closely with the Caruso team to determine an appropriate base water allocation for the property, and develop a plan that will include water-saving technology and drought-tolerant landscaping.

The project is no longer planning to use a controversial groundwater well, which will put more usage on the shoulders of MWD. Resident Ted Buergey doubted the statements of Mr. Mosby, saying, “There isn’t any water for this project. We’re going into a major emergency situation.” Caruso later responded, “There is no issue with water supply.”

Oak Creek

“We do not question that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with [regarding] Oak Creek,” Caruso said. However, he made it clear that according to his findings, the project does not have an impact on flooding of the creek. He cited a study done by a “registered professional civil engineer” which analyzed a 500-year flood in Oak Creek along with simultaneous 100-year floods in Oak Creek and San Ysidro Creek and found the Miramar would have no significant impact. Neighbors Stan and Jean Harfenist disagree. “There is just no way I can believe that that kind of landfill right behind us isn’t going to flood our house,” said Mrs. Harfenist, who hired an independent engineer to study the issue. “The engineering firms disagree,” she said. Mr. Harfenist added, “Don’t put our lives and our property at risk by mitigating to death a project that is much too large. Caruso maintained, “Our project should not be held up because there is a preexisting condition which we do not make worse.”

Historic Resources

In response to a question by commissioner Jack Overall, county planner Anne Almy explained that the “historic” aspects of the Miramar include the blue roofs and white siding, not the association with an architect or the setting. In order to restore the buildings, the aspects that make them historic would need to be demolished. “I understand,” Overall said, “I’m not sure I agree but I understand.”

Almy presented to the commission a list of fifteen reasons why the benefits of the project outweigh the impacts associated with historic resources. A few examples: tax revenue, improved beach access, improved railroad safety, new restaurants and shops for the community to use, and improvement of the environment due to the new landscaping and underground parking.

Environmental Impact Report

“For purposes of environmental review, the Schrager plan constitutes baseline, so when we looked at impacts we looked at the incremental change in impacts from those posed by the Schrager plan to those posed by the Caruso plan. We found in the addendum that with the exception of historic resources all impact areas resulted in impacts that were not substantially more severe,” explained Almy. During public notice of the SEIR, 100 comments were received which rendered changes to the plan. These include the elimination of a proposed well, elimination of a proposal to amplify sound outside, a reversal to retain several oak trees on the site, and a condition to monitor the use of the public parking spaces along South Jameson and Eucalyptus Lanes.

Many opponents stressed the importance of having a full EIR. Naomi Kovacs, Executive Director of Citizen’s Planning Association, said, “This project is not the Schrager project with just a few adjustments: it is a different project. It is much larger, it will have many impacts, and it’s just not the same plan. As such… it requires a full EIR.” Very close neighbors Brad and Julia Hall voiced similar sentiments. “If the biggest project in the most fragile site doesn’t require environmental review, what does?” asked Mr. Hall. “We as a community shouldn’t be in a panic, rather, we should be sure we get it right,” said another speaker.

County counsel Ed Yates told the commission that the route taken by Caruso is legally defensible, but he cannot say the same for the actual addendum due to litigation issues. “The determination about whether the document complies with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and serves your purposes is made by you and you only,” he said.

Size, Bulk, and Scale

Local architect Tom Bollay created a drawing showing the size of the project is comparable to three Home Depot stores. “As much as I, and the community, desire for the Miramar reconstruction to move forward, it is first imperative this project set the example of good design and comply fully with the letter and intent of the Montecito Community Plan,” wrote Bollay in a letter read at the hearing by one of his staff.

Mrs. Hall, better known as sitcom star Julia Louis Dreyfus, assured the commission of her hopes of seeing the Miramar rebuilt. “I have to drive through that rat-infested, dilapidated disaster everyday just to get to my house. If Caruso and Affiliates can rebuild the Miramar so that it is within the Montecito Community Plan I am one-hundred percent all for it.” She added a little Seinfeld humor to her statement, saying, “This design needs shrinkage. Commissioners, please give us shrinkage, and that is no joke.”

Parking/Traffic

Anne Almy, the county planner assigned to the project, explained that versus the previously approved Schrager plan, the Caruso plan would add an average of 48 daily trips onto surrounding roads, with approximately six of those during PM peak hours. Based on traffic engineering studies, according to Almy, those trips do not have an impact on surrounding intersections and roads.

Is the project consistent with the Montecito Community Plan

?

County staff analyzed the verbiage of the MCP and found the project consistent with the policy regarding “Cottage Type Hotel,” an issue raised by many. Almy also cited the positive comments of the Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR) as a way of satisfying the requirements of the community plan. Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker took issue with this, partly because the comments in the MBAR meeting minutes do not accurately reflect what was said, she lamented. Additionally, she explained, “I find it inappropriate that given [MBAR] only did a conceptual review that staff’s consistency is based on [the comments from that meeting]; it’s the mechanism of the whole thing that is a problem for me right now.”

While the commission dove into the finer details of the project, Caruso stood up at one point, obviously frustrated with the process. “I’m just a little confused to be honest,” he said, “We’re getting down to analyzing locations of elevators and widths of corridors… I’m just not sure how we ever get to a conclusion with this level of detail on each building, if that’s where we’re heading.” He went on to explain that through “hundreds of meetings” the plans reflect changes that staff has asked for and county policies have required. Gottsdanker responded, saying, “I realize, Mr. Caruso, that you’ve had hundreds of meetings… We, in fact, are the people who have to approve the project! We have to do that! Nobody else gets to do that! Now we are going through the details of the project so [we] can feel comfortable that this project is in fact consistent with the goals and policies and the ordinances of this county.”

Support from the community was widespread, as was evident in the “hundreds” of speaker slips Bierig estimated to be from supporters and the blue “Miramar Now” buttons worn by many. Montecito Association President Bill Palladini spoke on behalf of the association: “By a substantial majority, the MA endorses the Miramar proposal, and all of the conditions that were stated in the staff report.” Mary Belle Snow pointed out Mr. Caruso’s reputation is on the line. “I don’t believe he would come into the community of Montecito and build or even approach building a project that wasn’t first class or first rate and that he couldn’t defend legally in every way possible,” she said. Rainy Jones, on behalf of local contractors, gave her support for the fact that the project would create many jobs and help the local economy.

Some opponents criticized Caruso for trying to push the project through prematurely. “I sense seduction in his efforts,” one resident said. “Never in our lifetime has a developer been able to convince the public servants including the supervisor, county staff, planning commission and Montecito Association not to do their job, but to bow at the feet of a developer and have him completely ignore the community plan and nearly every idea that stems from it.”

Concerns from Commissioners

After over fifty people spoke during the public comment period, the commissioners asked questions of both the Caruso team and representatives from the Fire District and transportation department. The commissioners took turns discussing their main concerns.

Chairman Bob Bierig voiced his concern over approving the modifications requested by the plans, fearing that future projects would argue county regulations were changed for the Miramar. Executive Secretary Dianne Black explained that the commission has the jurisdiction to approve modifications given there is justification. Bierig also asked staff to clarify some floor area ratio issues that were raised.

Commissioner Sue Burrows asked Caruso about the proximity of one of the buildings to a nearby preschool located at All Saints Church. Caruso responded that there are no windows on that side of the building. Burrows also shared her concerns about adding a condition in the project that the property would use reclaimed water on the landscaping if necessary in the future. “You got a deal,” Caruso said.

Commissioner Overall asked for more information on the specific usage of the hotel in terms of events and the specific breakdown of employees to work in certain areas of the hotel. His concern is the low number of employees Caruso has estimated: 102 at any time, with 204 total employees. Commissioner Gottsdanker asked about size, bulk, and scale of the buildings. “Is this compatible with the residential surrounding area?” she asked.

Vice Chair Michael Phillips brought up parking concerns, saying “We have to be able to park these people or its going to be a nightmare!” He also discussed the adherence to the community plan, giving a suggestion that a parking level be removed from the main building. Caruso responded promptly, “It is inconsistent at best to worry about being ‘under parked,’ which were not based on the study, and ask us to eliminate a parking level.” He offered to walk the sight with the commission saying, “I’d love to have you tell me how we should build on it.”

The Miramar project is scheduled to go before the MPC on August 6, whereupon a final vote on the project is expected.