BELLEAIR — Town commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday night to reduce the size requirement for hotel properties, dismaying preservation advocates who say the decision paves the way for demolition of the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa.
The neighboring Belleair Country Club had requested the change in December, saying it wants to buy 2.3 acres of the Biltmore property from its Miami owners for continued use as surface parking. But that would have violated a town law that hotel properties must be at least 20 acres — the exact size of the Biltmore site — so commissioners were asked to reduce the requirement to 17.5 acres.
The amendment passed on first reading in February, but a lawsuit filed last month by preservation advocate Rae Claire Johnson, president of the Friends of the Belleview Biltmore Inc., claimed the action wasn't legal.
So the town delayed the final vote, pending a review by town attorney David Ottinger. He said his research determined the town had followed correct procedure and could proceed Tuesday.
Only Vice Mayor Stephen Fowler voted no. He said the tax revenue generated by a parking lot wouldn't "come even close" to what a hotel or residential development would.
"I just can't in my conscience vote to put a parking lot on the highest and best use land in … Pinellas County," he said.
But his colleagues said voting down the measure would interfere with the private property and transaction rights of the country club and hotel owners.
The decision came one day after Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC, a South Florida group that has spent years trying to raise enough money to buy and restore the Biltmore, told the media it had finally snagged a funding commitment from a private-equity firm to buy and renovate the hotel and an adjacent, town-owned golf course.
On Tuesday, the three partners met individually with Mayor Gary Katica and Commissioners Michael Wilkinson and Tom Shelly before pleading their case before a packed Town Hall.
Despite multiple delays over the past two years, Richard Heisenbottle, the architect who has led the preservation effort, said BBP has the finances "to move forward with this project once and for all." He even offered to fund construction of a parking garage for the country club.
Wilkinson told the Tampa Bay Times he was satisfied with signed financials BBP produced during his private meeting.
But Shelly said he was hesitant about the two-part pledge — $16 million for the first phase plus a second installment to build out the project — that BBP said it had received from an equity firm. He said BBP wouldn't reveal the total funding amount.
"They don't have the money yet," Shelly said. And "many financing commitments fall through. There's always outs that the lender has."
But commissioners said the matter is out of their hands. They referred BBP to St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem, who has a contract to buy the hotel from Raphael and Daniel Ades of Kawa Capital Management.
Cheezem — who has proposed condos, townhomes, a restaurant, event space or perhaps a small inn that replicates or preserves part of the original hotel — has said he is uninterested in dropping his contract.