BELLEAIR — St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem says he's not ready to walk away from his contract to buy the Belleview Biltmore Hotel.
Belleair town commissioners last week voted 3-2 to postpone by six months a decision on a new zoning category that would have paved the way for demolition of the former hotel and redevelopment of the site.
Cheezem wants to build condos or townhomes. His contract includes a six-month due diligence period he had planned to use to gather input from residents and other stakeholders about a development proposal before closing on the property.
Though most of the 200 audience members who packed City Hall last week appeared to be pushing for the deteriorating structure's renovation, Cheezem noted that several of the 40 people who spoke publicly did not live in Belleair. He said a lot of town residents appear to support a new direction for the Biltmore property.
The Biltmore, Cheezem said, just doesn't have the traffic or nearby amenities to sustain it as a hotel.
"The fact is that even if the money could be raised to renovate that and it could be perfectly restored, I feel you'd end up with a 400-room museum that somebody's going to have to pay for. I think the only practical answer is to move forward in a positive way to say how can we preserve that important heritage and history while allowing the redevelopment of the site," he said.
"If the issues can be worked out," Cheezem said, "we'd still be interested in participating in that redevelopment."
It appears he is in for an uphill battle.
Built by Henry Plant in 1895, the 400-room, all-wood resort housed presidents, celebrities and generations of Pinellas County residents and guests before it closed in 2009. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Diane Hein, president of Save the Biltmore Preservationists, a grassroots group of residents and hotel admirers fighting for the hotel's restoration, said in an emailed statement that two preservation architects have confirmed that renovation is possible. The Biltmore has been on the "11 Most Endangered" lists of both the national and Florida branches of the Trust for Historic Preservation.
She pointed out that Belleair passed a historic preservation ordinance in 2005.
The ordinance says any developer who wants to raze a historic structure must appear for quasi-judicial hearings before the town's historic preservation board and town commissioners, and obtain a special certificate of appropriateness. The stringent demolition certificate criteria require commissioners to consider questions such as whether the structure is the last of its kind or its demolition would affect the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
The ordinance also lets the commission approve a demolition permit but defer its effective date for a year while the commission "takes such steps as it deems necessary to preserve the structure," such as consulting with civic groups, interested citizens and public or private agencies.
"It was designed to protect the historic and iconic Belleview Biltmore so developers like Mr. Cheezem would not destroy this hotel as he wants to do," Hein wrote. "Belleair needs to enforce its own preservation law as well as its comprehensive plan to protect itself and its hotel from demolition."
Vice Mayor Stephen Fowler has made similar arguments.
In successfully motioning to delay the rezoning action last week, Fowler called for an injunction to block the hotel's Miami owners, Daniel and Raphael Ades, from trying to sell the Biltmore to a party that wouldn't restore it, which he said would violate Belleair's preservation code.
He said he believes the Ades brothers violated a part of the ordinance that bars the owners of historic structures from withholding routine maintenance, effectively resulting in "demolition by neglect." In such cases, the town can require the owner to take steps within 30 days to fix the problem.
Town Attorney Dave Ottinger said Monday that officials are "looking into the possibility" of a lawsuit, but "haven't made a decision on whether the town has a basis for such action or not."
Meanwhile, Ed Armstrong, attorney for the Ades brothers, has written a letter to Coral Gables architect and preservationist Richard Heisenbottle, who missed his Oct. 31 deadline to raise the last $200,000 in earnest money he needed to buy the hotel and save it from demolition. The letter threatened legal action if he continues to issue news releases full of "false claims" or otherwise interfere. The letter includes an email showing Heisenbottle had promised to back off after his latest purchase attempt fell through.
Cheezem said his firm, JMC Communities, is still "assessing where we are and keeping our options open" regarding the Biltmore redevelopment, and that it would be "premature" to say how long he's willing to wait before moving on.
Town Manager Micah Maxwell said he's hopeful.
"We're happy to have (Cheezem) still involved," Maxwell said. "Obviously, we have a six-month time period here. That's either going to work for him or not. So I guess we'll see."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.