Belleair demands Biltmore owners do more to protect it, or risk going to court

BELLEAIR — If the owners of the Belleview Biltmore don't take definitive action to protect the historic landmark from further damage, the town of Belleair may take them to court.

Town Manager Micah Maxwell made that statement at Tuesday night's Town Commission work session.

Last month, a report by town consultant McCarthy and Associates found about 20 areas of the 115-year-old hotel that are in worse condition now than they were a year ago. The report included some 200 photos, many showing sagging awnings, rotting wood and spans of ceilings and walls that have peeled away.

The report was presented to the town days after Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle, who wants to restore the Biltmore, announced he had a contract to buy the shuttered resort from a group of Miami investors who have owned it since December 2010.

Maxwell said he and the town attorney agree with the consultant that there is demolition by neglect occurring in the structure.

The town plans to send a letter to the owners today informing them of the violations. They would have 30 days to start fixing the problems before the town took action to make them, he said.

If nothing is done, the town could refer the matter to a code enforcement hearing. But Maxwell said he's leaning toward skipping the hearing and going straight to court if the owners don't do something.

Town attorney David Ottinger said the town could ask the court to compel the owners to make repairs or explore the possibility of criminal penalties.

Most commissioners appeared onboard with Maxwell's decision, even though town regulations don't require any action from them.

"Unless we take a firm stand, there will be nothing left of this hotel, with a hurricane season and a thunderstorm season that we're going to go through," said Mayor Gary Katica. "Whatever we have to do to put our foot down, it's time to put our foot down."

On Wednesday, Commissioner Tom Shelly said he had asked the town attorney how the town might expedite the process.

"Hopefully, they will respond during that 30-day period and put tarps on the roof and seal off the openings," Commissioner Tom Shelly said. "It's not rocket science. They know exactly what needs to be done."

Vincent Marchetti, a Tampa lawyer who represents the hotel owners, said his clients are trying to work with the town. He thinks the city should have held a public hearing to let the owners respond.

"Having the town commission, at a public meeting, discuss the results of that report without having the benefit of first having our input, from the property owners' perspective, as well as having an opportunity to meet with the town, is premature, at a minimum, and it's very concerning," he said.

The owners are already being fined $250 a day for failing to fix the hotel's dilapidated roof. They owe more than $226,000.

Last fall, a representative for the owners, Matthew Cummings, provided the Times with a pamphlet that described the procedures the owners were taking to protect the sprawling wooden structure from mold and water damage. The list included various efforts to ventilate the rooms and the use of industrial dehumidifiers if security personnel observed "moisture penetration." The information also described the use of a "canopy and trough system" to funnel rainwater leaking in from the roof out of the windows.

Marchetti said the owners are spending about $500,000 a year to maintain the hotel structures. But Shelly said he saw little evidence of that on his tour of the hotel this spring.

Also on Tuesday, town leaders discussed the process for creating a community redevelopment area for the 22-acre Biltmore property and the small bridge that leads to the hotel. With a CRA designation, revenue could be raised through tax increment financing, which reserves extra tax dollars collected because of a rise in property values in the area to be used for improvements there.

Mike Meidel, Pinellas County's economic development director, also shared options for offsetting startup costs for the project. Among the options is designating the hotel property as a brownfield site, which means the site's redevelopment may be complicated by actual or perceived environmental contamination. Applicants can receive tax refunds equal to 20 percent of the average annual wage of the new jobs created in a designated brownfield area, up to $2,500 per employee.

Heisenbottle said the renovated hotel could create between 600 and 800 permanent jobs.

His partner, Charles Kropke, who also attended the work session, thanked town leaders for their support.

"You said last time we met that you'd give us assistance on the Belleview Biltmore and you are and we're very appreciative," Kropke said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.

Belleair demands Biltmore owners do more to protect it, or risk going to court 05/02/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 7:32pm]

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