Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Caruso fed up with planners

BY COLBY FRAZIER
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER

After more than 11 hours of watching his proposal for the Miramar Hotel go through the gauntlet of the Montecito Planning Commission, developer Rick Caruso wanted out.
He asked and nearly pleaded for the commission to grant him an outright denial of the project so he could wash his hands of the decaying waterfront resort and sell it to someone with a clean slate.

“I seriously would appreciate it if you’d do that so we can move on with our lives,” Caruso said. “You’ve got me stuck and I can’t be stuck financially. I can’t get stuck in limbo here.”
Despite his requests, the commission declined to deny the project, and instead continued the discussion to Aug. 28, a hearing Caruso said he’d attend, but isn’t sure what will be said.
Caruso’s plans for the Miramar, which has sat vacant on the Montecito waterfront since 2000, began to seriously unravel when the commission voted 4-1 to conduct a subsequent environmental impact report to analyze the availability of water. Commissioner Michael Phillips made the motion after county legal counsel outlined the benefits of such study.
Caruso had argued that water would not be a problem, citing a “will serve” letter from the Montecito Water District, which essentially guarantees Caruso all the water he’ll need for the hotel.
However, Chief Deputy County Counsel Michael Chizzoni told the commission additional environmental review is called for whenever significant changes occur either to the project plan itself, or to natural resources. In this case, Chizzoni said an ordinance passed by the Montecito Water District last April that stated Montecito had used 600 acre-feet more water in 2007 than it had, is significant enough to order environmental review. Combine this with recent confusion as to exactly how much water Caruso’s Miramar would need, and Chizzoni said a perfect storm exists to call for an EIR.
An initial estimate of water usage for the Miramar, according to county staff reports, was 117 acre-feet per year. But it appears all sides agreed a more appropriate estimate of water usage would be closer to 45 acre-feet per year.
Several hours before the commission voted for an additional EIR to look at water issues, Montecito Water District General Manager Tom Mosby assured the commission there was adequate water for the hotel.
“We can supply the project with water,” Mosby said shortly after telling the commission he had no idea where the 117 acre-feet of water estimate originated. In the end, Mosby’s comments and Caruso’s insistence that water would not be a problem wasn’t enough to derail an EIR.
Additional environmental review is one of the main things residents opposed to Caruso’s project have been calling for. Opponents have insisted Caruso’s plan, which is more than 30,000 square feet larger than the plan approved in 2000 when New York hotelier Ian Schrager owned the Miramar, was too great to let slip by without analysis.
Caruso maintained that since his project had fewer rooms, 204 compared to 213, and overall “intensity” of use wouldn’t be increased, additional EIRs wouldn’t be necessary.
Prior to their vote on the water EIR, the board picked through the project piece by piece, explaining their displeasure with certain aspects of the hotel’s design, such as setbacks, height, and how the net square footage was calculated.
For Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker, the project’s size, bulk and scale was an issue.
“I think we’ve heard by many people that it’s too big. It’s just too big,” she said.
Commissioner Phillips said he thought the project was more “Monticello than Montecito. It’s too formal.”
“I think it needs to look smaller somehow,” he said. “I would like to see something else.”
Commissioner Sue Burrows said she would like to have the lights at the tennis courts turned off at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. Caruso said he’d comply, but Commission Chair Bob Bierig responded by saying he didn’t want any lights at all.
“I wouldn’t want it next to my house,” he said of the lighted tennis courts. “We don’t grant them to other people.”
As these items were being discussed, the commission still hadn’t dealt the project the final blow, in Caruso’s eyes, of the EIR.
It’s not exactly clear the commission knew the extent of Caruso’s frustration. Shortly after they voted in favor of additional environmental review and Caruso began calling for an outright denial so he could place a for sale sign in the window, Commissioner Phillips offered to remove his motion from the table.
That didn’t happen, nor did the denial, which prompted Montecito Association President Bill Palladini to storm out of the room. Palladini could be heard saying he’d, “heard enough.” Caruso chased after him, but Palladini didn’t return.
Caruso said he was mostly puzzled, since every homeowners association in Montecito supported his project. It also had support from county staff and had a nod of approval from the Montecito Association.
“I must admit I did not expect this result,” he told the commission. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Chair Bierig said he felt Caruso, who is perhaps best known for building shopping centers such as The Grove in Los Angeles and The Promenade in Westlake, was misled by a number of groups that gave him the impression his project was approvable.
“I think you’ve been poorly served by some of the bodies you’ve dealt with,” Bierig said. “They can accept things that we simply cannot accept. It’s just too bad we’re where we are.”
When asked after the meeting what the odds are he’ll follow through with another redesign of the Miramar, Caruso said it was slim. He said he’s spent tens of millions already.
“I would just ask let me go,” he told the commission. “Let me go. Let somebody else take this on.”
When they didn’t do that, Caruso made light of it as he exited the county administration building with a group of young interns, architects and supporters.
“OK, so let's go have a cocktail,” he said.

19 comments:

Joe Allegretti said...

This is getting ridiculous -- so nice to see that "Miramar Junkyard-by-the-Sea" sitting there year after year after year after year.... Way to go, Montecito.

Anonymous said...

The Montecito Planning Commission is made up of the Uber-busybodies in the community. Every homeowners' association in the area is in favor of this desperately needed and long overdue project, but the Ubers just can't stop tweaking Caruso's whiskers (and wallet). They seem to take sadistic pleasure in their haughty disregard for the developer's very real pain.

Time to re-consider cityhood. These self-anointed gatekeepers must go. Cityhood is the only way the community will finally be able to re-take control of land use issues from these nazis.

Anonymous said...

It is sad to see how the Commission chooses to find reasons "not" to approve, instead of working with this fine developer (who I have never met personally).

The water issue was addressed very clearly by Mr. Mosby, the expert and manager of the "water". This property has a right to the water from the Montecito Water Company, historical use of the water since 1924 and the preveyor of the water explained that they have secured an addittional 1,000 acre feet to assist the Montecito situation that has been created by the homeowners, not the Hotel. Plus, the Miramar has the right to the water in the ground.

It is time to find reasons how to make this project work NOW. Mrs. Burrows was the only commissioner yesterday to start addressing issues and working them out with Mr. Caruso and he was very willing to hear the issue and come up with a solution i.e. tennis court lights and walking path at the parking at Jameson. Why not work with him instead of sitting there for hours, cutting off the Public hearing and then sucker punching this true gentlemen.

As for the speaker slips, Chairmen Bierig asks the public to please keep their comments to new issues, to be quick and then slams those of us in the audience, who put in a speaker slip and adheared to his request and did not take our 3 minutes. If I knew what issues they were heading towards I would have spoken, but the CEQA issue of water was hidden and was even a surprise to the commissioners, by the attorney until after public comment and after Mr. Mosby was told he could leave.

Is the project perfect, no, but this is not a perfect world. The devil is in the details which the commissioners could have conditioned so Mr. Caruso could move forward and Montecito and the County of Santa Barbara could begin to enjoy the benefits both financially and esthetically and the residents could begin to take pride in their gateway.

BTW: The Montecito Journal made mention of the possibility of the Chumash being able to claim this property, Mr. Caruso can you partner with the Chumash and put a Casino there which will not have to go through all the approvals? Not that any of us would want that but you can bet this smart man may give up going the friendly route sooner of later.

Did you also caught the fact the Cal Trans is already working on a new 101 proposal which involves adding a lane inward by taking out the median instead of moving outside the right of way....Montecito, maybe in 1991 you should have barked up the "make it beautiful" instead of insisting on not widening the 101. Now you will get ugly since you would not compromise and Cal Trans needs to take pressure off the traffic flow, they apparently have some money to do it but not enough money to spend to make you happy. I guess it is not all about YOU!

David Pritchett said...

When in doubt, call your debating opponents a Nazi. Smooth.

Of course, any project applicant simply can WITHDRAW his project application and need not go through the high drama and game of seeking an outright denial as a way to save face and elevate the property selling price.

The legal Process seems to have prevailed here, and the meanly slammed line-staff planners Michelle Gibbs and Julie Harris were right all along for following the law and upholding their professional ethics.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said, "Time to re-consider cityhood. These self-anointed gatekeepers must go."
Even if Montecito were to become its own city, it would still have a Planning Commission. Currently, Montecito is the only community in the County that already has its own Planning Commission.

Anonymous said...

The Montecito Association has a stated mission to preserve the semi-rural ambiance of the village. There have already been too many exemptions made, leading to a rapid degradation of this ambiance. I am delighted to see the Montecito Planning Commission finally had the guts to stand up to this current assault. The hotel project is too big, period. It in no way fits the guidelines set forth by the Montecito General Plan established through 6 years of hard work by local residents. It belongs in Caruso's Orange County, not Montecito. One small example: no tennis courts in Montecito are allowed night lighting. Why should the hotel be exempt? Would you want your bedroom flooded with light and to listen to the bouncing of balls while you try to sleep at night? Thank you, Bob Bierig, for noting this.

Anonymous said...

"Even if Montecito were to become its own city, it would still have a Planning Commission."

Yes, but the new commission would be appointed by a City Council which would have been elected by and answerable to the citizens of Montecito (and only Montecito). A non-trivial difference from the current situation.

Silvio Di Loreto said...

After living through a decade of planning governed by negativity on the part of the planners, I have come to the conclusion that negativity although necessary should as well as a positive attitude should each be kept in balance. Too much focus on either is dangerous.

The question is how do we come to a wise balance?

I love the person who came up with "the optimist invented the airplane and the pessimist the parachute". Both have something to contribute

Anonymous said...

"One small example: no tennis courts in Montecito are allowed night lighting. Why should the hotel be exempt? Would you want your bedroom flooded with light and to listen to the bouncing of balls while you try to sleep at night?"

Oh, please. This is a hotel. It's next to a freeway that emits more noxious lights and sounds than a tennis court ever would. And the developer has agreed to turn off the lights by 9PM.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Caruso would have had a much easier time if he had started on the right foot with all aspects of the community. He favored his Vegas style resort design team over local consultants and with their high-priced advice has dug himself quite the sink-hole. His approach lacks sensitivity to so many aspects of local concern. While Caruso will benefit from the profits our community has to live with the results. Without a full EIR how can we be sure that this everlasting legacy will be without stains?

Anonymous said...

I really can't wait to see Rico start crying. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Three cheers for the MPC.

Anonymous said...

What amazes me about Montecito is how deeply opinionated people are with seemingly so little understanding of what they are talking about.

In 1992 the Board of Supervisors adopted a Montecito Community Plan. It is the law, and while Caruso tried to push it, bend it and walk over it, the Planning Commissioners have taken an oath to uphold it. They can make some modifications, but only if they find there is substantial reason to do so.

Prior to the Stomp-Out-of-the-Room-If-I-Don't-Get-My-Way Palladini régime, the Montecito Association did a lot of groundwork behind the scenes to help a developer tweak a project that would conform to the community plan and pass MPC's difficult scrutiny. That's why Bierig, a past MA president, was so disappointed with the Montecito homeowners group and particularly with Palladini.

If folks really don't like the way the Planning Commission rules, change the laws by asking the Board of Supervisors for a new community plan, and you can have as many four story buildings as you like. Until then, we are stuck with the laws on the books, and remember this beautiful community did not just happen-- it is a planned community and looks the way it does because of the Montecito Community Plan and the Montecito Planning Commission!

Thank you Commissioners for saving us from ourselves and our reckless lack of common sense.

Anonymous said...

Return the land to the people!

It's time to take a totally different approach.

Have the Coastal Commission, County Parks and Heal the Ocean purchase the property and turn it into a park. With pervious-surfaced parking and native plantings this public beach access would be a highly valued and very popular new park.

NO water needs to worry about. NO run-off to worry about. NO run-down, rat-infested buildings marring the entrance to Santa Barbara. NO need for an EIR(!) as the project would remove acres of asphalt and add acres of native plants.

A win-win for all. With no tennis courts. Just the public enjoying the natural beauty that draws us all to Santa Barbara.

Surfs Up!

Mike in Montecito

Anonymous said...

Good. Turns out the Montecito Homeowners Associations doesn't have enough power to overturn State law as writted in CEQA. Whew. It was getting close there. I'm sure the Montecitans are furious that their money couldn't subvert the law. Score one for responsible government! If Caruso had followed the law from the get-go, he wouldn't be in his self-designed mess. This should be a lesson for all.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like Montecito doesnt want a hotel to be built there at all. Maybe they would prefer a park instead?

SB_Pete said...

It seems that the limited local support for this project is based on the fact that the property is a dump, rat infested, and a eye sore. The county should enforce their own laws and have the property owner clean this property up, regardless of approval to build a new project.

Also, how is a project that is 30,000 square feet larger than the orginal project that the EIR is based on not "signifcantly larger" What a joke.

LA and Orange County developers beware, you are not welcome in SB. Keep LA 100 miles away!!!

Anonymous said...

Like all astute businessmen, Caruso must have read "The Art of War," which is how to win business deals and overcome your enemy. One important way to do it is to divide and conquer. Differences of opinion are fine - that makes life interesting. But look at the division this man has created in the community. Look at the vitriol, the hate! Look at neighbors slamming neighbors! Caruso did NOT have our community at heart. He is an out-of-town developer who wants what he wants when he wants it. He came in, and in the guise of schmoozing, started pitting one side of the community against the other, fueling hate, rage - division. Please examine your own rages that you did NOT have before this man came to town. Thank you, Mr. Caruso, for blessing our community the way you have.

Anonymous said...

I see both sides on this issue. To Caruso's credit, he has gotten conflicting orders and restrictions from different organizations, and has had to re-design his property twice (costing him millions). Now, at the 11th hour, they want him to go back to the drawing board and completely redesign the hotel (i.e. to be one-story, instead of two along the front; to have a huge 30ft. setback on all sides, etc.) They could have prevented this by giving him the setbacks and restrictions the FIRST time. (The Mont. Planning Commission seems knowledgeable, but very disorganized.)

HOWEVER, let's not forget it takes most developers MUCH longer to get their projects approved than two years. It took Fess Parker 10 years! Let's also realize that without strict commissions like this, Montecito would not be the classy, quaint, charming village that it is. Rather, we'd have bright lights, signs and big gaudy buildings everywhere. Ty Warner, who understands "understated elegance" and the "cottage style buildings" (like San Ysidro Ranch) would have been better for the project (but he couldn't pencil it out apparently.) If you've seen Caruso's shopping centers, they are better for growing suburban cities like Oxnard or Vegas. While attractive, they are big, tall, showy and FAR from the "cottage style" that the Montecito Plan has envisioned and called for.

And to address a few of these comments here about the neighbors: there are several neighbors who are adjacent and very close to the property against the project (even if some "homeowners associations" didn't mind it.) And no, these properties are NOT right on the freeway (like someone above said), but a block from it (away from the lights and sounds). And if I were these neighbors, I would not want to sit on my deck at night and not be able to see the ocean in front due to the huge lights flooding down on me. And since they are going to build the land up 10 feet above the neighbors, where do you think the rain water is going to flow?

I agree that it's a shame the property has to sit there and rot for additional months or years. But to rush into approving a white elephant just because we are desperate to get SOMEthing in there, is foolish. And, hopefully, for the next developer, the commission can give all their restrictions in ADVANCE of the design process, instead of piecemealing it.

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