Thursday, August 28, 2008

No EIR for Miramar


In three weeks, a lot can happen in the world of planning and development in Montecito.
Over that span of time, the Montecito Planning Commission went from near unanimous agreement that more environmental review was needed before it could allow developer Rick Caruso to realize his vision for the shuttered Miramar Hotel, to a unanimous vote yesterday that no such review is necessary.

The three-week window was also enough time for Caruso to change his tune. At the conclusion of the Aug. 6 meeting, Caruso pleaded with the commission to deny his project so he could more easily place a for sale sign in the window.
But yesterday, he showed up with an amended plan for the seaside hotel that persuaded the commission to vote 5-0 to grant Caruso conceptual approval of the project. The commission also voted unanimously to rescind their earlier vote requiring additional environmental review.
As a result, the Miramar Hotel, which has changed hands three times since being closed in 2000, appears to be about as close to getting its long-awaited face lift as ever before.
“Everything on this plan is better,” Caruso told the commission. “Less intense.”
Caruso moved a step close to the conclusion he’s been waiting for, but will still have to go through another Montecito Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 8. At that meeting, county planning staff will likely showcase all of the commission’s recommendations and conditions that have suggested for the project, and many could be levied against it.
The ultimate goal, according to Matt Middlebrook, Caruso’s vice president of government relations, is to get approval and begin moving forward with restoring the beloved hotel, which has slowly decayed to the point of disrepair.
After hearing a number of presentations yesterday, commissioner Michael Phillips, who made the motion on Aug. 6 to force a subsequent environmental impact report on the availability of water, made the motion yesterday to erase the earlier vote.
Phillips said questions he had about possible lack of water for the hotel had been answered.
He said the biggest change to information coming from the Montecito Water District between yesterday and Aug. 6 was a new rate structure approved by the district and its decision to purchase additional state water.
The new rate structure, which increases the price per acre-feet of water for single-family homes from $3.75 to $3.90, has been touted by Montecito Water District General Manger Tom Mosby as an avenue that will spur further conservation.
Phillips said a combination of the increased conservation and the district’s decision to purchase additional state water made him feel comfortable with dissolving the earlier vote.
“I finally think I heard enough from Mosby today to let me go ahead without calling for [a supplemental EIR],” he said. “I don’t know what we’d find with more studies.”
As proposed, the hotel would consume just over 51 acre-feet of water per year, about six more than the district said it would provide at the base level. If the additional six acre-feet were used, Caruso would have to pay additional fees, just like any other person in Montecito.
Over the past two months, water had been the subject of much confusion, so much so that county legal counsel told the commission at the Aug. 6 meeting that the most solid path forward would be to require additional environmental review on the topic.
And while Phillips said water issues were addressed to his satisfaction, the existing environmental review, which was conducted when New York hotelier Ian Schrager owned the hotel, may not be adequate in court.
“Technically, we may have an environmental document that may not survive,” he said. “I hope it does, I hope for the applicant that it does and I hope for Montecito that it does.”
As if anticipating the commission’s decision to not seek environmental review, Caruso entered the meeting with a set of revised plans that were made to please.
In the new plans, Caruso lowered the height of the hotel’s main building by four feet to 38 feet. Middlebrook said this is still slightly higher than typically allowed and will require a special condition, but is a height some commissioners said they could live with.
Another change included moving a series of two story buildings along Jameson Road out of the setback, a rule many of the commissioners seemed intent on preserving. When concern was raised at the Aug. 6 meeting, which lasted 12 hours, about lights on the tennis courts, Caruso said he’d turn them off at an earlier hour, but yesterday said he wouldn’t have lights at all.
A two-story building that would apparently be build near an existing church, was also chopped to one story, and according to Middlebrook, that single story was divided into two smaller structures.
After the changes, Middlebrook said the final project is now 6,600 square feet less than originally proposed.
“We made a lot of significant changes,” he said. “They were clearly positively received and that’s why we received conceptual approval.”

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