Tears, Tantrums, and Table Thumping

The Montecito Association Board, at its August 12 meeting, spent most of its time discussing the recent events surrounding the Miramar project, including confronting rumors that have swirled throughout the community. As expected, the meeting was a lively one, complete with tears, tantrums and the repetitive sound of President Bill Palladini’s gavel hitting the table.

The latest Miramar hearing at the Montecito Planning Commission on August 6 prompted some community members and local newspapers to publicly attack the Montecito Association, accusing it of not looking thoroughly enough at developer Rick Caruso’s 204-room project before endorsing it at the July 16 MPC hearing. Ted Tedesco, the MA’s Land Use Committee chairman, took issue with the attacks, reminding the board and the packed room that along with the endorsement was a laundry list of 82 conditions contained in the county staff report that the board wanted to see before the project should be approved.

Several other items were discussed, including the concern of the Association that the two-story spa building was too large to be in such close proximity to All Saint’s Church. This issue was addressed by the Caruso team on August 6; the new one-story spa building was presented to the MPC. Tedesco said of the controversy, “We studied [the conditions]; we know what we’re talking about; we studied every bit of the details. If we are feeling like a bunch of guilty little children because of one editorial writer [News-Press Editorial Page Editor Travis Armstrong] who never attended any meeting... he can say what he wants; he is one person, who attended none of our meetings.”

Tedesco went on to address MPC President Bob Bierig’s comment at the latest meeting, which implied Caruso had been misled by the MA’s endorsement, thinking because of it the MPC would approve the project. Tedesco said, “I take umbrage, quite frankly, with what the chair of the MPC said. That we somehow or another, we, a bunch of citizens, misled a multi-million-dollar development specialist individual, Caruso. Man, I didn’t know we had that much power. I mean if you are not insulted by that statement, I think you ought to be.” He reiterated the fact that the MA spent more than ten meetings over 18 months looking at the project. “We should take pride in what we did,” he said.

Water Remains an Issue

Board member David Carpenter agreed with Tedesco, saying, “We’re here to serve our membership, we’re here to serve the people of Montecito… I think we need to take great pride in the fact that we helped the Caruso group move in the direction that they’ve moved. I don’t think we should apologize for anything.” Board member Mindy Denson added, “We’ve stated our position; now we move forward.”

Palladini went on to explain to members of the board some of the issues the MPC had with the project, including FAR calculations, elevation, height and setback modifications, traffic, and water. The one formal position the commission took was a 4-1 vote requesting a supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) regarding water, an issue that has been brought up numerous times even though Montecito Water District General Manager Tom Mosby has assured the MPC the district is able to supply water to the project. The issue arose after the original SEIR estimated the 15-acre project would need 117 acre-feet of water per year, which was considerably higher than what MWD expected to provide. After studying the project’s needs, MWD determined the actual allotment for the project would be 45 acre-feet per year. Caruso rep Rick Lemmo said, “The water district, as of this afternoon, stated definitively that they will achieve an approximate 10% water savings with their new rate structure alone; this will generate revenue to buy water which will balance their supply and demand. If the Miramar, or any customer goes over their [allotment] they’ve gotta pay a ridiculous amount.” Lemmo also said the allotment has been estimated between 45-51 acre-feet of water.

“The Truth About Miramar”

Another issue that put into question the validity of the Association’s position is that two members of the board, who happen to be on the land use committee, sent a letter to the MPC stating their disapproval of the project. A member of the audience suggested asking those board members to resign, but Palladini said their actions were permissible because they had the permission of the president. Yet another member was accused of creating a conflict of interest because she hosted a party for Caruso to help him gain community support. Resident Karen Drown said, “It occurred to me that perhaps it is an appearance of impropriety to have someone that’s on the board acting in such a strong advocacy role for an applicant for a project in our community. That was a real concern on my part.”

Resident Stacy Pulice stated that she is currently in contact with 250 residents who disapprove of the Miramar; she told the board that a group has formed called The Truth About Miramar, consisting of homeowners. “At this point we’re a little concerned about the process here,” she said. Ron Pulice added, “It’s not about your personal opinion, or the developer’s opinion: it’s about the laws that have been passed in this community and if you don’t adhere to these laws, then leave!” He accused the board of not adhering to the Montecito Community Plan when making their endorsement of the plans. As the conversation got increasingly heated, a teary eyed J’Amy Brown said to the board, “I’m terribly disappointed in you.” Brown, a former MA president applauded the board members who did not agree with the Miramar endorsement, adding that “they showed the only sense on this board.” As a show of solidarity of the MA, honorary directors Joan Wells and Dan Eidelson were present to voice their support.

Back to the MPC August 28

Miramar neighbor Jean Harfenist showed the board and the audience pictures taken of flood lights on the property that she claimed are shining directly into some of the neighbors’ homes. Lemmo explained they are there for security purposes, which stirred up audience accusations of Caruso’s lack of tending to the property. One man exclaimed he would help pick up the property by renting the dumpster himself. Miramar project manager Matt Middlebrook told us later that Caruso’s team has tried to stay on top of the maintenance of the so-called dilapidated site by recently getting rid of weeds on the entire property and staying abreast of graffiti incidents. As far as the flood light issue, he said the lights were installed in the parking lot located on the Miramar property to deter people from loitering there. “We are tightening up security,” he said. However, he had not heard that the light was imposing on the neighboring residences. “If there is a concern, we will address it; it’s news to me,” he said. He also mentioned that a gate leading to the beach was taken down because people were breaking through it in order to access the beach. “We took down the gate to allow beach access; it just wasn’t safe,” he said.

So what’s next for the project? The plans will be back before the MPC on August 28, and Middlebrook is hopeful a decision will be made. He said if the MPC denies the project the Caruso team plans to appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors. As far as presenting more changes to the project on August 28, they “are looking at options.” He said, “There are a lot of changes that were suggested and some of them just simply won’t work. We’re trying to figure out what might work and what won’t. A project like this, it’s not just so easy to lop off a floor here or lose up to three feet from a fence there; it’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” he said, “even the smallest changes have a significant ripple effect throughout the project." He added, “It’s a good project and the community’s been behind it and we’re hopeful we can get it to move forward.”

In other MA news, Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace reminded the board that another public meeting to discuss the site for a third fire station is scheduled next Monday, August 18 at 6 pm at Station 1. Lieutenant Eric Koopmans of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department reported a relatively slow month for crime: two residential burglaries and several thefts from unlocked vehicles.

The next MA board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday September 9 at 4 pm.

Flower and Begonia Show at Gazebo

On Friday August 15 and Saturday August 16, Gazebo Plants and Flowers is hosting a flower and begonia show in association with the American Begonia Society. Mike Flaherty, owner of the shop, tells us the annual show is expected to bring begonia growers from California and beyond; he expects over 500 people to attend the free two-day event.

Flaherty, who has owned the shop for 37 years, will be showing his hybrid begonia “Red Fred,” which won the American Begonia Society’s 2007 Best New Hybrid Begonia award. Another winner on display will be Paul Carlisle’s begonia, which won the Society’s Best in Show award last year. “Some of the plants we are displaying have been growing since the 1970s,” Flaherty said, explaining that the begonia plant dies back in winter and re-blooms in the spring. Lotusland is also featuring a plant at the show called “Rudy Tutti.”

Throughout the flower shop, customers can find plants from all over the world; Flaherty has traveled extensively, including to Bali, Thailand and Singapore. Over 250 orchids will also be shown during the event, along with many other plants and flowers including “a beautiful display of Australian Protea.” Flaherty is busy getting the shop ready; he plans to add over 100 flowering plants to the “Mike’s Garden” section of the store alone. Gazebo Plants and Flowers is home to one of the world’s tallest impatiens, and an assortment of begonias called luxurians, which, Flaherty was quick to point out, can be mistaken for marijuana plants.

Proceeds from the show this weekend benefit the Begonia Seed Fund of the American Begonia Society. The fund helps save begonias all over the world by storing endangered seeds in a seed bank. Eventually those seeds will be used to re-seed the plants back to their native land. The Rudolf Ziesenhenne branch of the American Begonia Society, of which Flaherty is president, is hosting the show. Ziesenhenne was a former president of the society, as well as the owner of a well-known nursery in Santa Barbara for 75 years; he passed away in 2005.

The event will be held from 9 am to 5 pm this Friday and Saturday at Gazebo Plants and Flowers located at 1505 East Valley Road. For more information call 805-969-4367.