Caruso resort project wins support of Santa Barbara County board

Saillant is a Times staff writer.

It was a project that nearly slipped out of developer Rick Caruso’s grasp. But after many delays, Los Angeles’ builder of uber-malls this week won approval for his first foray into resort development.

Caruso’s plan to transform the aging Miramar Hotel from a Montecito eyesore into a 192-room luxury seaside hotel won the backing of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

The go-ahead came after months of contentious hearings and nearly two years after Caruso bought the 15-acre coastal property east of Santa Barbara. The process included multiple hearings at which opponents attacked the project before the Montecito Planning Commission.

At one point, Caruso asked planning commissioners to reject his proposal outright so he could sell the acreage. They refused, and the developer ultimately presented a scaled-down plan.


On Tuesday, supervisors voted 4 to 1 to reject an appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval. Caruso said the long haul to a green light was worth it. “It’s such a great community up there, and the property itself is just unbelievable,” he said Wednesday. “To have 15 acres on the beach is unbelievable. You could never, ever find that property again.”

Caruso’s project is the third put forward by developers seeking to remake the Miramar, a collection of wooden bungalows and rooms that have long passed their heyday as a vacation haven for Southern California families.

Caruso envisions a five-star resort with 192 rooms, three restaurants and two public access points to the beach. Nearby residents have fought aspects of Caruso’s project for months, saying that it was too big, would generate too much noise and would cause flooding on an adjacent creek.

To address such concerns, Caruso agreed to lower building heights, eliminate nighttime tennis and reduce the number of rooms from 209.


Two parties remain opposed, however, and have threatened to file lawsuits seeking to overturn the Planning Commission’s approval. Caruso said he would work with critics to avoid that.

“For all the money spent on the lawsuits, we could instead work together to solve the creek problem,” Caruso said.

Supervisor Janet Wolf, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said a full environmental report on the hotel project should have been done before it was approved.

Design plans and additional approvals should be completed by late 2009, with construction set to start in 2010, Caruso said. The current economic downtown shouldn’t delay it, he said.