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Belleair officials okay Biltmore upgrades in often-heated, seven-hour meeting

The Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa will close for renovations next May and reopen in January 2012 in hopes of returning it to its former glory.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa will close for renovations next May and reopen in January 2012 in hopes of returning it to its former glory.

BELLEAIR — Beautiful hotel. Ugly meeting.

The testimony was often heated, sometimes accusatory and went on for seven hours.

But at 3 a.m. Wednesday, the Belleair Town Commission unanimously approved an ambitious expansion of the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa.

The resort's new owner got virtually everything it sought except a 60-foot height on one new building. Instead, the height of that 153-room annex will be limited to 50 feet.

Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, which bought the hotel last June for $30.3-million, had sought to build the annex and a spa taller than the town's code allows. It also wanted fewer parking spaces than the code requires.

In return, Legg Mason promised to restore the rundown, leaky hotel to its majestic status as the "White Queen of the Gulf."

The $100-million project will replace the current pagoda entrance with something more in keeping architecturally with the rest of the resort. It also will create more ballroom, banquet, meeting and convention space.

When finished, the Victorian-style, 820,000-square-foot main hotel will have 260 rooms. The campus will include a two-floor underground parking garage. Landscaping and walking trails will replace the existing parking lots.

As planned, the resort will close for renovations next May and reopen in January 2012.

The resort needs the makeover "for its future sustainability and health," said Joseph Penner, managing director Legg Mason.

But early Wednesday morning, no one left Town Hall unscathed.

• • •

With more than 170 people packing the meeting, insults were hurled left and right, some in whispers, others in jeers and boisterous boos.

Commissioners' political careers were threatened, journalists were accused of spinning the facts and one woman loudly made sure town leaders knew it was 2:30 a.m.

Two leading opponents of Legg Mason's plans were the Belleair Country Club and Fred Thomas, the Pinch-a-Penny founder and former Clearwater city commissioner.

Both hired well-connected attorneys — Ed Armstrong for the country club and Alan Zimmet for Thomas.

The country club argued that a 60-foot-tall annex would "diminish the value of the club's property and the enjoyment of the members," said James McArthur, president of the club's board.

Zimmet contended for Thomas, who lives in a condo across the street from the planned spa, that having fewer parking spaces at the resort would force spa visitors to park on neighborhood streets.

Armstrong and Zimmet spent hours rebutting witnesses' testimony and challenging their credibility.

They hammered away at the idea that the commission could not legally approve a variance from code requirements "based on the financial gain" of the hotel's operation.

And the main reason Legg Mason needed these variances was to make money, they contended.

Legg Mason representatives acknowledged that a competitive resort must have a spa, an annex and more lush landscaping. They said they needed the extra height so that new buildings matched the main hotel. And they needed fewer parking spaces so they would have more room for the greenery.

"You can compare this to an antique Victorian teapot that's missing its handle and spout," said hotel manager Martin Smith.

"You can take this beautiful teapot and polish it up and add back the handle and the spout and make it wonderful," he said. "Or you can throw it in the garbage and buy one from China."

Delivered in his colonial British accent, Smith's witty remarks drew applause.

But resort supporters booed Armstrong's attacks on the Biltmore's plan.

At one point, Armstrong successfully cited an obscure provision of the town code to get commissioners to disregard all of Legg Mason's expert testimony.

Especially sharp was his questioning of the resort's top architect, Richard Heisenbottle of Coral Gables. Here's a paraphrase of one of their exchanges:

Armstrong: Do you agree that the financial gain or loss can't be a justification for granting a variance to the code?

Heisenbottle: I can't make a legal opinion.

Armstrong (handing over a page from the town's code): Then just read it.

Zimmet likewise took a few shots at the architect, questioning why he didn't know that similar resorts — with fewer parking spaces — were having parking problems.

"This was not meant to be an exhaustive study," Heisenbottle said. "The rest of the world gets away with 300 and 400 spaces and we're going a step further."

"There may (still) be parking problems," Zimmet said.

Heisenbottle got in a few zingers of his own, getting the opponents' experts to admit they spent nowhere near the time Legg Mason did studying the property, the landscape and just where amenities should be placed.

And supporters of the resort complained that opponents had their own agendas.

Thomas, they said, was throwing his money around to thwart another revitalization effort.

The country club, they accused, feared that the resort's own 18-hole golf course could put it out of business. (Not true, said McArthur, the club board's president.)

• • •

As the clock ticked into early Wednesday, the once-packed audience dwindled and the sides compromised.

Somewhat.

McArthur agreed to the hotel's proposal to build a 50-foot-tall hotel annex rather than a 60-foot-tall one.

Commissioner Stephen Fowler said the developer needed the extra space and height. Losing the green space, and possibly one of the cottages on the property, "would be criminal," he said.

After the meeting, Zimmet said Thomas "didn't get what he wanted" on parking. He didn't know yet whether Thomas, who declined comment, would challenge the commission's decision.

By the time it was over, the 30 or so residents left were mostly happy and tired supporters.

"I'm glad it's finally finished," said Rae Claire Johnson, president of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore. "I'm elated."

>>At a glance

What the commission approved

The Belleair Town Commission early Wednesday signed off on six of seven variances requested by Legg Mason Real Estate Investors and compromised on the seventh. Commissioners agreed to:

• A 50-foot-tall hotel annex. The developer asked for 60 feet. The code allows 32. (This means the developer now gets 153 rooms in the annex instead of 176.)

• A spa 39.08 feet tall.

• A poolside cafe 40.33 feet tall.

• Not require the spa and cafe to be attached to the Biltmore. The town has a rule that any "accessory" has to be in the main hotel.

• Reduce the required length of parking spaces from 20 to 18 feet

• Reduce the parking normally required for such a project from 2,075 to 635 spaces. (The hotel can also use 238 spaces from its golf course and another 125 from a contract it has with Morton Plant Hospital).

Belleair officials okay Biltmore upgrades in often-heated, seven-hour meeting 05/21/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 3:15pm]

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