BELLEAIR — Stepping lightly around an activist’s lawsuit, town officials took another step to jostle the Belleview Biltmore out of limbo Tuesday night.
Town commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a preliminary measure that would create a new type of zoning with a density of 10 apartments or condos per acre with limited building heights of 32 feet, unless a development has a small enough footprint to qualify for more height. The new zoning does not currently apply to the hotel property, but it could in the future at the request of a developer. Deputy Mayor Steven Fowler cast the sole dissenting vote.
A final vote takes place April 15.
The vote is the latest move in the ongoing debate over what to do with the old building some say has outlived its use but others believe could again become profitable as a resort with the right investors.
The town’s aim appears to be to turn the land on which the Biltmore sits into a development that generates tax revenue, even though it’s not clear whether the building itself, which has stood since the late 19th century, will remain standing when the drama ends.
The commission’s decision didn’t directly cause any substantive changes to the property itself but served as a small step in the direction of what will likely be redevelopment.
“You have an opportunity to have this property successfully redeveloped,” said attorney Ed Armstrong, who is representing the current hotel property owner, Ralph and Daniel Ades of KAWA Capital Management. “Send a message tonight that you’re going to keep moving forward instead of feeding into the strategy of obstructionists to delay, delay and delay. That’s not doing any good.”
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Supporters of preservation implored the commission to reconsider.
“We now have several interested parties,” said pro-preservation resident Carmen Hayes. “We have gone through a depression and we’re now seeing the little light at the end of the tunnel. It took 17 years for the Vinoy so I ask for you to stick to your decision on a six-month delay.”
In January, the commission had voted to delay its discussion on the new land use category for six months, a decision it quickly rescinded.
The Belleview Biltmore was once a Gulf Coast grand dame nicknamed the White Queen of the Gulf. Before it closed in 2009, it had been running at a loss for decades and passed through the hands of myriad investors and hoteliers.
Town leaders, including Mayor Gary Katica, have said the property is a drag on the city, the abandoned hotel is costing $800,000 a year in lost tax revenue and blight the dilapidated building creates is further affecting town coffers by driving down property values for surrounding homeowners.
Preservationists from across Pinellas County have been pushing for the hotel’s restoration for years, though, and have repeatedly urged the town to do everything in its power to save what they call the “heart and soul” of the town.
Yet nobody has been able to afford the estimated $150 million-plus price tag such an endeavor would entail.
South Florida-based investors the Ades Brothers have made it clear it intends to sell the property to a developer.
Mike Cheezem, the developer behind such projects as Clearwater Beach’s Sandpearl Resort and Ovation, a condominium tower along downtown St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive, has offered to buy and redevelop the property and has said he’d like to keep part of the hotel intact.
Many in the audience applauded the commission for moving forward.
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“We in fact have been held hostage now, for a while, behind a chain-link fence waiting for someone to ride in on a white horse with bags of money,” said Tom duPont, head of the Belleview Island Homeowners Association. “It’s not going to happen.”
Another vote scheduled for Tuesday would have reduced the minimum amount of space allowed for hotels from 20 to 15 acres to make it easier for an adjacent golf course to buy land on the hotel property to use for parking.
But town attorney David Ottinger advised against a vote in order to assess the risk the town faces in light of a lawsuit.
Last week, preservationist Rae Claire Johnson filed a lawsuit on behalf of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore Inc. against the town and the Belleview Biltmore Country Club over the town’s vote on reducing the hotel zoning category minimum to 15 acres.
The suit says only the landowner has the right to propose such a change.
Katica on Tuesday called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
“It was all based on not-truths so we were told not to worry about it,” he said before Tuesday’s meeting.
The issue will be taken up again April 1.