BELLEAIR — Votes on two new zoning measures that could smooth the path for demolition of all or part of the former Belleview Biltmore hotel sparked passionate speeches last week by several town commissioners and a member of a preservationist group attempting to buy and save the historic structure.
The Belleair Town Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday night to create a new zoning district a developer could apply for if he or she wanted to raze the Biltmore and build condos or townhomes in its place.
Current zoning on the Biltmore site allows only for a hotel or single-family homes.
The new zoning option, RM-10, offers more flexibility and height than the town's two existing multifamily residential zoning designations. It allows up to 10 units per acre — a density between the other two zoning categories — and the potential for building heights up to 80 feet if the developer incorporates certain incentives like enclosed parking.
"This is just a tool in the toolbox for us to use at some future time," Commissioner Kevin Piccaretto said. "It is not a zoning change tonight."
But like countless meetings before, the decision was steeped in controversy, with speaker after speaker standing before a packed Town Hall to speak for or against RM-10.
Commissioner Tom Shelly kicked off the meeting with a statement disclosing that in early April he had agreed to relay to JMC Communities CEO Mike Cheezem, the St. Petersburg developer who has a contract to buy the hotel, the "general terms" of a purchase offer by Belleview Biltmore Partners, a South Florida preservationist group that said it had been unsuccessful at reaching Cheezem. According to Shelly, Cheezem responded that he would think about the offer.
Shelly said he would refrain from further involvement to avoid any appearance of impropriety: "I can no longer communicate between them on the issue. It's a matter between the private parties involved."
At one point, Mayor Gary Katica interrupted speakers, picked up a portable microphone and stood in front of the dais. He described his conversation two weeks ago with BBP, which issued a news release saying the group had finally secured a funding commitment from a private equity group two years after embarking on its quest to buy the Biltmore. But in a meeting with Katica, the group wouldn't let the mayor read the purported funding document.
"I said 'What the hell is this? Another dog and pony show?' " said Katica, who referred the group directly to Cheezem.
BBP member Charles Kropke explained the group's inability to close on the Biltmore in October, saying the last 30-day extension the hotel's owners gave BBP wasn't enough time to raise the final $200,000 needed. Katica responded that the group had months to raise all the funds needed.
Piccaretto asked Kropke how the RM-10 option, which BBP opposes, would harm his group's push to buy and restore the hotel.
Kropke responded that the option "clears the way for the demolition of the hotel."
Ultimately, most commissioners voted to add the RM-10 option to city code.
Only Commissioner Stephen Fowler voted no, saying he preferred adopting a mixed-use zoning option — the next item on the meeting agenda — that would encourage preservation of at least a piece of the Biltmore for a boutique hotel, along with restaurants and other amenities, just as Cheezem has proposed.
"RM-10 doesn't allow for anything but housing," Fowler said. "Mixed use will give us far more opportunities."
Commissioners subsequently gave staff the okay to research the densities, incentives and other specifics that should be included in the mixed-use ordinance. The measure is expected to go before the Planning and Zoning Board for a recommendation on May 12, then to the Town Commission for public hearings and votes on May 20 and June 17.
In response to critics, town officials said neither the mixed-use nor RM-10 zoning options would preclude a preservationist from attempting to negotiate a purchase deal with the hotel's Miami owners.
The photo caption has been amended to reflect the following correction: Belleair commissioners gave town staff permission to draft language for a proposed ordinance that would allow mixed-use development on the Belleview Biltmore hotel property. A photo caption Sunday was incorrect on that point.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.