BELLEAIR — A chain-link fence surrounds the 113-year-old resort, shuttered nearly a year. Plans to restore the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa were unveiled 2 1/2 years ago, but legal challenges stalled the project.
Monday, the hotel got a break. The appeal period on the latest court challenge expired, basically clearing the way for the development team to jump in where they left off.
"All of the pieces have to be put back together," said Martin Smith, a project consultant and hotel managing director.
The historic hotel was supposed to open in January 2012. Now, the timetable is unclear.
"I don't think that at this point we can possibly speculate. We have to see what kind of reception we get in the credit market and what opportunities are really out there," said project architect Richard J. Heisenbottle. "At least the path is clear."
The hotel owner, Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, plans a makeover exceeding $100 million. It also wants to build a 38-room, Victorian-style "boutique hotel" with an adjoining 160-seat restaurant on the Cabana Club site on Sand Key.
But both of those plans were waylaid by lawsuits.
Two years ago, three Belleair residents challenged plans for the Biltmore. Then, last year, just around the time that group lost its appeal, another group of Sand Key residents appealed Clearwater's approval of plans for the Cabana Club.
That group lost its challenge in late February, and Monday the suit's 30-day appeal window closed.
Sand Key resident Cynthia Remley, a spokeswoman for the residents' group, said expenses played a role in the group's choice not to appeal.
"We believe this is the best result we are going to get," Remley said.
With the legal hurdles behind, the development team has new obstacles.
"The challenge now is finding financing for the entire project and moving it forward," Heisenbottle said. "This is the first time we can truly begin the process of doing that, knowing full well we can really build it."
On top of that, the owners are being fined daily for not fixing a decaying roof.
In November, the hotel's owner filed a petition requesting a review of the town's decision to fine it $250 a day. The owner has until Monday to file a brief in the case.
The owner has also asked Belleair to extend the expiration on its site plan and project variances, which expire next month, Town Manager Micah Maxwell said. The town previously approved plans to provide fewer parking spaces and taller structures than the code allows.
Heisenbottle said the development team is still enthusiastic.
"It can easily be the finest hotel on the west coast of Florida and one of the finest in the state," he said.
The owner, formerly known as Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, bought the hotel for $30.3 million in June 2007. The resort, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in December 1979, was a popular spot for movie stars, pop icons and presidents.
The historic resort dodged the wrecking ball at least twice in recent years.
Five years ago, after at least two plans by potential buyers to raze the hotel, the resort was named one of America's most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Now, some aren't sure the renovation will come to fruition due to the economic downturn, tough credit market and huge cost of renovation. Mayor Gary Katica said people in town are "constantly" inquiring about the hotel and many are nervous.
Katica said he's glad the "frivolous lawsuits" are over, but he's not breathing a sigh of relief, yet.
"I think it's a step forward, but I won't really feel comfortable until I see shovels in the ground," he said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.