BELLEAIR — Town officials got a curious inquiry last week about the languishing Belleview Biltmore property.
Would the town allow any development other than a hotel or golf course?
"Oh no," Mayor Gary Katica said. "Here we go again."
The call came from attorney Ron Weaver, who once represented a developer hoping to raze the historic hotel. Weaver wasn't specific, but asked a series of questions about commercial and residential possibilities.
Belleair Town manager Micah Maxwell said he told Weaver he couldn't speak for commissioners.
Lack of action on the property and little feedback from the owner in recent months has fueled speculation about the inquiry. The owner, now called Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, bought the hotel in 2007 with plans for a $100 million makeover. It has blamed lawsuits and the lagging economy for stalling the project.
Latitude Management president Glenn Sonnenberg did not return calls for comment.
Weaver represented DeBartolo Development five years ago. That's when the company unveiled plans to raze most of the hotel and build a pedestrian-friendly village like Disney's Celebration on the hotel's 136-acre golf course. Residents responded to the proposition with boos and hisses. The previous year DeBartolo Development was part of a group that planned to demolish the entire hotel.
Weaver declined comment last week.
Neither Edward Kobel, president and chief operating officer of DeBartolo Development, nor a company spokeswoman returned calls.
Deputy Mayor Steve Fowler said he had some concerns after learning that Weaver was DeBartolo Development's former attorney.
"I am concerned obviously because the life and the well-being of the hotel is primary on everyone's agenda," Fowler said.
Commissioner Tom Shelly cautioned against drawing conclusions from Weaver's previous representation.
"He represents quite a few different people. He's one of the top land use attorneys in Tampa Bay," said Shelly, a real estate broker for Sunshine Commercial Brokerage.
Shelly said he hopes Weaver has a client with the capacity to restore the Biltmore and a desire to work with the town to come up with the right plan.
It's not clear whether Weaver was asking about the possibility of building something on the site instead of the 113-year-old hotel or in addition to it.
Developers hoping to demolish the hotel or build on the golf course face numerous obstacles.
Five years ago, when the hotel was at risk, the town adopted a historic preservation ordinance to protect structures like the Biltmore, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
And the town's comprehensive plan mentions the protection of the Biltmore and its golf course.
Maxwell said he told Weaver that changes in the comprehensive plan and land use would require a supermajority vote by commissioners.
People in and out of Belleair support the Biltmore's preservation. But as the process drags, some of that support has waned. And many who live in nearby condos have grown tired of staring at its dilapidated roof.
Within town, the prospect of building on the golf course may be even less popular than harming the hotel.
Katica said it would be a deal-breaker for him.
"People bought houses and condos with idea that they're overlooking the golf course," he said. "Those people have to be protected."
Reach Lorri Helfand at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.