BELLEAIR — Town commissioners on Tuesday evening unanimously voted to reverse an earlier decision to wait six months before discussing new zoning options for the Belleview Biltmore property.
Town staffers will bring back more information by April on new zoning categories a developer could apply for if he or she wanted to tear down the historic structure to build either condos or a mixed-use project that could incorporate a range of uses such as residential, restaurant, retail or hotel.
Current zoning on the Biltmore site allows only for a hotel or single-family homes.
Many of the nearly 200 audience members applauded the commission's decision as well as a tentative proposal by St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem, who has a contract to buy the deteriorating hotel from Miami investors Raphael and Daniel Ades.
Cheezem told the audience that he currently envisions a mixed-use plan in which he would transform a portion of the 117-year-old Biltmore into a small boutique hotel that would operate alongside condos and townhomes.
Cheezem bluntly warned commissioners that the proposal would require demolishing the majority of the hotel. However, he said he plans to meet with residents and other stakeholders in coming months to gather input as he crafts specifics and hopes to find a "common ground" that satisfies everyone.
"I'm intrigued by what Mr. Cheezem has presented this evening," Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto said, noting the development mogul's track record of churning out successful projects. "He has presented something that can be accomplished with Belleair in mind and something that Belleair can be proud of."
The purchase and subsequent development would breathe new life and revenue into a town that leaders say has suffered since the Biltmore, known as the "White Queen of the Gulf," closed in 2009.
A large contingent of neighbors, former guests and admirers have been fighting for restoration of the structure, or at least preservation of a portion of it, but no one has come forward with the money to restore it.
The current owners have said the building is too far gone to be rehabilitated. An engineering consultant recently told the Tampa Bay Times that 25 percent of the former hotel would have to be demolished and a "significant portion" reinforced or repaired.
Vice Mayor Stephen Fowler last month made a motion to delay talks about a new zoning category that would allow condos or townhomes, saying Belleair's historic preservation code doesn't allow the Biltmore to be demolished to build something new.
Commissioners Mike Wilkinson and Tom Shelly supported the motion.
However, all three men said Tuesday that they were open to the idea of mixed use.
"I think we've got a great opportunity with mixed use," said Fowler.
"I think we need this flexibility in our land development code," Shelly said.
While Wilkinson echoed Mayor Gary Katica's statements that a full hotel restoration is preferred, he said Cheezem's proposal is a compromise. Even if the new zoning options pass, he noted, a preservationist could still come forward to purchase the hotel.