CLEARWATER — A Sand Key citizens group is fighting City Hall and the owners of the Belleview Biltmore Resort.
The ongoing conflict continued Tuesday in a quasi-judicial hearing where the residents argued against the resort's plan to replace its aging Cabana Club restaurant on Sand Key with a six-floor beachfront hotel.
The city has approved this plan. Yet nearly 50 people from Sand Key with strong feelings about the case showed up at City Hall for an incredibly dry, highly technical, four-hour hearing on the issue.
"It's a declaration of war by the city on Sand Key. They're trying to turn our residential community into another hotel alley like Clearwater Beach," resident Cynthia Remley said of this and other recent efforts to add hotel rooms to the condo-covered barrier island.
However, the other side argues that such concerns are overblown.
The Biltmore's owner, Los Angeles-based Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, wants to build a 38-room, Victorian-style "boutique hotel" with an adjoining 160-seat restaurant on the Cabana Club site, which the Biltmore has long owned.
Legg Mason says the new hotel will fit in with its surroundings and will be an improvement over the aging building that's there now. "It's beneficial for the community," said Martin Smith, the Biltmore's managing director.
Clearwater's Community Development Board unanimously okayed the project after a raucous hearing last year. City staffers had recommended that it be approved.
Neighbors in the surrounding high-rise condos object to the plan for a number of reasons, but mainly they fear that inadequate parking at the site would create traffic problems and send customers' cars spilling into their parking lots.
Alan Zimmet, an attorney for the Sand Key residents, spent Tuesday's hearing trying to make a case that the city didn't follow its own development code when it approved the hotel and restaurant with 56 parking spaces.
Legg Mason's lawyer, Thomas Reynolds, and two attorneys for the city made the opposite case.
Hearing officer Bob Meale of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings will make a ruling within 45 days. After that, the losing side is expected to appeal to Pinellas Circuit Court.
Meanwhile, another controversial Sand Key zoning case is still being contested in court.
However, in the case of the Shoppes on Sand Key, the city government and Sand Key residents are on the same side. They're in a legal fight with the strip mall's owner.
The owner of the Shoppes wants the 3-acre site at 1261 Gulf Blvd. to be rezoned as "Tourist" under the city's development code, which could allow a building up to 100 feet tall to go there. Neighbors oppose this.
The city refused to rezone the land, but the property owner won an initial appeal in circuit court. Now it's the city's turn to appeal. A hearing is scheduled for April 8 in the 2nd District Court of Appeals in Tampa.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.