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Owners must repair historic Belleview Biltmore hotel, officials say

BELLEAIR — Layers of shingles have chipped away. Fragments of the tarps that once protected the historic hotel cling to its roof.

After seeing recent photos of the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa, town leaders said they plan to force the owners to repair its dilapidated roof.

"There's a thing called demolition by neglect, and that is what we have happening here in Belleair," Mayor Gary Katica said at Tuesday's city work session.

He persuaded officials to use a provision in the town code to protect the hotel.

The provision says that, if the town manager determines a historic structure is being demolished by neglect, he can begin a process to force its repair.

And if an owner fails to fix the problem within 30 days of being notified, it could see fines, a lien or legal action.

Since the town has already fined the owner for roof damage, legal action would likely be the next step, Town Manager Micah Maxwell said.

But a representative for the owner said it has done a lot of work, including patching a number of leaks, to make sure water isn't seeping inside.

"Obviously, the outside looks worse than it is," said Joseph Penner, a consultant for the owner, Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, formerly known as Legg Mason Real Estate Investors.

Penner, who learned of the town's latest decision from a reporter, said he couldn't comment about it specifically.

As far as the project goes, he said, "We are doing our best to move forward."

According to hotel officials, it would cost about $4.5 million to repair the roof and that work must be done as part of an overall renovation.

Emanuel Mersis, who lives in a condo next door to the hotel, is ambivalent about the Belleview Biltmore's future. He said he wrote the mayor and took pictures of the hotel because he was worried about debris flying in a storm and numerous other health and safety risks.

"I live right next to it," said Mersis, 67, earlier this week. "It's a shack waiting for something bad to happen, and somebody needs to do something."

Katica, however, is passionate about the 113-year-old hotel and is determined to protect it.

"It was the most beautiful site in the world, and look at it now," Katica said as he showed town officials Mersis' photos at the work session.

Deputy Mayor Steve Fowler, who is also passionate about the hotel's preservation, said he wanted to remind people that a few residents of the nearby condos filed a lawsuit that challenged the project and contributed to its delay.

But he didn't let the owners off the hook.

"I think it's time for them to do something in a real manner," said Fowler, who supported enforcement of the "demolition by neglect" provision.

The provision came into effect five years ago, when the town adopted a historic preservation ordinance to protect structures like the Belleview Biltmore, which had been at risk of being razed at least twice since 2004.

Legg Mason Real Estate Investors bought the hotel in 2007 with plans for a $100 million renovation, which was approved two years ago.

The roof has been in disrepair since the storms of 2004, when the hotel had a different owner.

Last fall, the town fined the owner $250 a day until it fixed the roof. The owner, which owes more than $65,000, hasn't paid and instead filed an appeal in circuit court.

Its challenge says the code enforcement board's decision did not comply with legal requirements and was not supported by evidence. It also raises questions about a board member apparently trying to "exchange fines for benefits to other property owners" during a meeting.

Meanwhile, many residents are eager for renovation efforts to begin.

"They've got to move forward with that," said resident Lil Cromer. "It could look like the Vinoy."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Owners must repair historic Belleview Biltmore hotel, officials say 08/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 8:05pm]
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