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Go-ahead on Biltmore renewal delayed by opponents' possible appeal

BELLEAIR — Four days before the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa closed its doors to prepare for a $100 million makeover, an appellate panel denied a legal challenge that could have hindered the project.

But the owner's attorney, Thomas Reynolds, says the restoration of the 112-year-old hotel is still somewhat in "limbo" because his client, Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, doesn't know if the decision, filed Thursday, will be appealed.

Neither does the attorney who represents three Belleair residents who last summer filed the suit, which challenges the town's approval of a site plan and variances for the project.

"I haven't heard from all of them yet," Alan Zimmet said Monday afternoon. The Palm Harbor lawyer represents the residents, Fred Thomas, Robert Swinehart and Scott Spencer, who own homes within 75 feet of the Biltmore property.

An appeal could delay the restoration for at least another six months, said Reynolds of Rahdert, Steele, Bole & Reynolds in St. Petersburg.

His client, which bought the resort for nearly $30.3 million in June 2007, already has a lengthy process ahead, with acquiring financing and submitting plans and drawings for a building permit, he said.

Among other topics, the residents' challenge raised issues about the location and height of the spa. They said the town of Belleair showed favoritism toward the owner and unfairly limited the amount of time they had to present testimony and arguments at a town hearing for the project.

The appellate panel said the residents were "only three of the many interested persons" that showed up in response to the Biltmore's application and that they were properly allowed to present evidence and cross examine witnesses. It also found that the commission had "substantial evidence" to support its decision.

Reynolds said he was confident his client would prevail.

"In my opinion, the case law and statutory law was on our side," Reynolds said.

Zimmet said he was "extremely disappointed with the court's ruling."

The town has spent between $50,000 and $100,000 fighting the challenge, according to Belleair Mayor Gary Katica, who called the suit "frivolous."

"The town has done their part," Katica said. "The rest is up to Legg Mason."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Go-ahead on Biltmore renewal delayed by opponents' possible appeal 06/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 8:16pm]
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