BELLEAIR — A lawsuit filed against Belleair by resident Rae Claire Johnson caused the Town Commission to tap the brakes last week on one action that could encourage redevelopment of the Belleview Biltmore hotel property. But it didn't even slow them down on another.
The commissioners voted 4-1 to create a new zoning district that would give a developer of the Biltmore property more flexibility and height than the town's two existing multifamily residential zoning designations.
The new designation, RM-10, would allow up to 10 units per acre — a density between the other two zoning categories — but unlike those, would not cap building heights at 32 feet. A developer who got RM-10 zoning could build up to 80 feet if he met certain desirable conditions, such as enclosing the parking area or setting buildings farther from the property line.
Only Commissioner Stephen Fowler voted no, saying a maximum height of 58 feet should be set for RM-10 projects.
"Next time you drive along Sand Key, look at an eight-story condo," he said, suggesting that buildings of that height don't fit in generally low-rise Belleair.
But Fowler failed to persuade other commissioners or some members of the audience, who urged the commission to keep moving forward on several code amendments that could make the Belleview Biltmore property more likely to be redeveloped.
St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem has a contract to buy the Biltmore property from its Miami owners and has said he would build condos there and perhaps a boutique hotel, but would demolish most or all of the 117-year-old Biltmore.
The commission must vote a second time on April 15 to create the new RM-10 category.
Commissioners decided, on the advice of their attorney, to delay a final vote on another item: reducing the minimum acreage for hotels.
The town currently requires at least 20 acres for a hotel property — the Biltmore has 20 acres — but the town staff has proposed reducing the requirement to 17.5 acres. That would allow the Biltmore's owners to sell a 2.3-acre plot to the adjacent Belleair Country Club.
The town checked out five other resort hotels in Pinellas County and found that their acreage ranged from 3.38 (the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach) to 19.79 (the Tradewinds Resort in St. Pete Beach). The average for the five was 11.94 acres.
The amendment passed on first reading in February, but a lawsuit filed on March 20 by preservation advocate Rae Claire Johnson, president of the Friends of the Belleview Biltmore Inc., claims the commission's action wasn't legal.
Johnson's petition filed in the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court contends that opponents of reducing the acreage weren't given proper notice of the February meeting or sufficient opportunity to be heard. It also claims that the February discussion should have been a quasijudicial hearing, with evidence and witnesses presented, and that Mayor Gary Katica called for the vote "while opponents were still at the lectern preparing to speak in opposition."
Johnson asks the court to review the town's action and set aside the vote.
At Tuesday's commission meeting, town attorney David Ottinger said the February vote was a valid act, but he suggested the board briefly delay its final vote on the reduction of acreage so he could thoroughly review the issue. A special meeting to conduct that vote has been scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall.
Among the speakers last week was Ed Armstrong, the attorney who represents the hotel's owners. He said opponents of Biltmore redevelopment have a strategy to "delay, delay, delay."
"Send a message tonight that you are going to keep moving forward," he told commissioners.
Jim White, president of the 553-member Belleview Biltmore Homes Association, said his board approved a resolution supporting the reduction in acreage and the RM-10 zoning.
Resident Daniel Hartshorne told commissioners that Johnson's lawsuit is "provocatively idiotic," and noted that no developer has come forward with the $250 million some contend it would take to preserve and restore the Biltmore.
"Unfortunately," he said, "this hotel's time has passed."
Diane Steinle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4152.