CLEARWATER — After a long and convoluted legal fight, a panel of judges has cleared the way for the owners of the Belleview Biltmore Resort to replace the resort's Cabana Club restaurant on Sand Key with a six-floor beachfront hotel.
The project has been the subject of intense debate and legal challenges since 2008, when Clearwater's Community Development Board approved it.
Many Sand Key residents oppose the plans for a 38-room hotel and 160-seat restaurant, saying it would be too much development for a small site with little parking.
But the Biltmore's owners say the Victorian-style "boutique hotel" they have planned will fit in with its surroundings along Gulf Boulevard and be an improvement over the aging building now at the site.
A Sand Key citizens group called Save Our Neighborhood appealed to the courts to overturn the board's decision.
But a panel of three Pinellas County circuit judges has ruled that the city was justified in allowing the $14 million project.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Belleview Biltmore and its Cabana Club property will truly be redeveloped.
The 110-year-old Biltmore, one of Pinellas County' most significant historic structures, closed last summer for a three-year, $100 million makeover.
Some observers aren't convinced the Biltmore will reopen due to the economic downturn and the huge cost of renovation. Its owners are being fined daily for not fixing the decaying roof.
"It's a rotting hulk sitting there," Belleair Mayor Gary Katica said. He hopes renovation work will begin now that various lawsuits against the resort have been decided. "All I know is the path is clear. Let's rock and roll."
The legal challenges have delayed construction, said George Rahdert, an attorney representing the Los Angeles-based owners, Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, formerly known as Legg Mason.
Rahdert said the judges' ruling in the Cabana Club case "really eliminated the last major legal hindrance to the project."
The Cabana Club is essential for the overall Biltmore restoration, he said. "My clients were not willing to do this project without having the beachfront element that this part of the project provides."
A group of Sand Key residents has been fighting the Cabana Club project because, among other reasons, residents fear that inadequate parking there will send cars spilling over into condominium parking lots.
The lawsuit argued that Clearwater didn't follow its own development code when it approved the hotel and restaurant with 56 parking spaces.
The panel of judges found some errors by the city, but nothing compelling enough to make it overturn the city's decision.
"We are reviewing and investigating our appeal options," said Sand Key resident Cynthia Remley, a spokeswoman for the residents' group.
"We are disappointed that the judges thought the errors were not egregious enough to constitute a departure from the essential requirements of the law," Remley said. "And we are disappointed because of the adverse impact this will have on our residential neighborhood."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.