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Biltmore owners deny demolition by neglect

BELLEAIR — The firm that owns the Belleview Biltmore insists it is not letting the historic hotel rot, but it is willing to come up with a plan to minimize future damage anyway.

On May 3, Town Manager Micah Maxwell wrote a letter accusing owner BB Hotel LLC of demolishing the hotel by neglect. He said the owner's failure to make necessary repairs has allowed the 115-year-old structure "to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair."

If the owner didn't start fixing the problems within 30 days, he wrote, the town was prepared to take BB Hotel to court and/or seek criminal penalties.

However, in a 12-page letter sent to Belleair on Friday, the owner's lawyer, Vincent Marchetti, said BB Hotel disputes the town's findings, which were based on reports by town consultant McCarthy and Associates.

McCarthy's report last month said that about 20 areas of the hotel are in worse condition now than a year ago. The report included some 200 photos, many showing sagging awnings, rotting wood and spans of peeling plaster.

Marchetti's letter claims that the methodology the consultant used is "flawed" because of three significant shortcomings: Many of the photos in the report were shot from different angles than the photos in the report a year earlier; shots from similar angles don't show progressive deterioration; and many of the problems that do exist are linked to issues before the owner bought the Biltmore and, therefore, couldn't be caused by the owner's negligence.

In several cases where the town said damage is worse, the owner asserts that the photos are misleading. "Plaster peeling will continue due to our effort to maintain wind flow and allow (the) building to breathe to prevent mold," it stated.

Nevertheless, according to the letter, the owner is working with an architect to review the town's findings and come up with some strategies to prevent future damage.

Town Commissioner Tom Shelly called Marchetti's letter a "stall tactic."

"I'm confident that any judge that looks at the pictures of the hotel will see that it is demolition by neglect," Shelly said.

David Ottinger, Belleair's attorney, agreed with Shelly's assessment of the pictures. But, he said, the town doesn't want to waste time arguing, especially since the owner seems willing to work with the town to protect the hotel.

"They made a proposal to cure the problem," Ottinger said. "I think we're going to plan on having discussions with the hotel owner to talk about specific measures that can be taken as soon as possible."

The owner hopes to preserve the hotel, especially since it has a deal with someone who wants to restore it, Marchetti wrote.

On April 2, Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle announced he had a contract to buy the shuttered resort from the group of Miami investors who have owned it since December 2010.

On the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, the hotel has been at risk of demolition at least three times since 2004. In 2005, months after an application was filed to raze the hotel, the town adopted a historic preservation ordinance to protect it. The ordinance gives the town authority to penalize property owners who intentionally or inadvertently neglect historic sites.

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.

Biltmore owners deny demolition by neglect 05/22/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 7:16pm]
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