CLEARWATER — After hearing nearly five hours of intense debate, a city board voted Tuesday to allow the new owners of the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa to redevelop the resort's aging Cabana Club restaurant on Sand Key, replacing it with a six-floor beachfront hotel.
The city's Community Development Board okayed the controversial $14-million project, despite vocal opposition from nearly 100 Sand Key residents, who packed into a chamber at City Hall.
Neighbors in the surrounding high-rise condos object to the plan, saying a 38-room hotel with an adjoining 160-seat restaurant would be too much for a small site with 56 parking spaces. They fear that inadequate parking there would send cars spilling over into their residential neighborhood.
But the Biltmore's owners, Los Angeles-based Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, say there won't be a parking problem because they'll be shuttling resort guests and staffers over to the restaurant from the Biltmore, 5 miles away in Belleair.
Board members heard impassioned pleas from neighbors, many of whom wore stickers reading "SON" for "Save Our Neighborhood." Both the developer and a coalition of Sand Key residents brought a lineup of lawyers and hired experts to make their respective cases.
"They are seeking to put 10 pounds of sugar into a 5-pound bag," said land use consultant Todd Pressman, arguing that Legg Mason wants to overbuild on the site. "We are pleading with you to keep south Sand Key the way it is. It is quiet. It is residential."
However, Legg Mason insisted that a modestly sized "boutique" hotel would fit in well with the surrounding area.
"Some would lead you to believe that we are building the Disney Grand Floridian on 1 acre of beachfront in Clearwater," said the project's architect, Richard Heisenbottle. "We are the shortest of all the buildings there that have been built on the west side of Gulf Boulevard."
City staffers sided with the developer and recommended that the plan be approved.
Members of the Community Development Board unanimously okayed the project.
Although some of them expressed reservations about the parking, they said they were confident that Legg Mason, which is investing roughly $100-million to restore the Biltmore and make it a four- or five-star resort, will make sure there are no parking issues at the Cabana Club site.
"It can be handled, and I'm sure they'll handle it appropriately," said board member Jordan Behar.
After the vote, the grumbling crowd headed toward the exits.
The board's decision is binding and doesn't need approval from the Clearwater City Council, although opponents could file an appeal with an administrative hearing judge.
Legg Mason hopes to begin construction by 2010.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.