BELLEAIR — Uncertainty about the Belleview Biltmore hotel's future only grew Wednesday after Belleair commissioners voted Tuesday to delay for six months a rezoning decision that could have resulted in demolition of the historic landmark and redevelopment of the land.
Hotel admirers have sought a preservationist to buy and restore the 400-room hotel, built in 1895 and closed in 2009.
Since that hasn't happened, the town staff proposed a new zoning category that would let something other than a hotel or single-family homes be built where the Biltmore stands.
But in a 3-2 vote Tuesday, commissioners decided to wait, telling staffers to tweak the proposed ordinance. One commissioner also called for a lawsuit to block the hotel's Miami owners from trying to raze the structure, saying it would violate Belleair's historic preservation code.
Meanwhile, the owners' lawyer says it's unclear whether St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem, who has a contract to buy and replace the hotel with condos or townhomes after a six-month due diligence period, will pull out.
"As we sit here at this moment, we don't know" what will happen, said attorney Ed Armstrong, who represents Biltmore owners Raphael and Daniel Ades. "It'll take some time to sort out all the options."
Tuesday's vote came after a contentious meeting that drew about 200 spectators. Most of the 40 speakers urged commissioners not to open the door to townhomes and condos. Several said the Biltmore's structurally sound foundation make it ripe for restoration.
"This is the heart and soul of Belleair. We have condos in Belleair and plenty of them," said resident Karmen Hayes.
Some speakers supported the rezoning, citing the hotel's deterioration and declining property values around it. Even if the Biltmore were restored, some speakers doubted it would be viable given the lack of a vibrant downtown and waterfront in mostly residential Belleair.
Added Planning and Zoning Board member Randy Ware, "This is not about whether the hotel can be preserved or restored. It's about how no one has stepped up to do it. … That property is no longer a treasure."
Cheezem was blunt: The Biltmore cannot be renovated. He said his team is ready to work with the community on a plan.
Some residents said they wanted the town to give Richard Heisenbottle, a Coral Gables architect and preservationist, time to obtain funding to purchase the property. They also said a second potential buyer is in the wings.
However, Heisenbottle missed an Oct. 31 deadline to raise $200,000 in earnest money to buy the property. Mayor Gary Katica criticized Heisenbottle on Tuesday, saying he had "paraded all kinds of people in here," yet "we've seen zippo." Meanwhile, Katica said, Belleair has lost $4 million in taxes and utilities since the Biltmore closed.
Katica and Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto voted against the rezoning delay but were outnumbered.
Vice Mayor Stephen Fowler made the motion to delay, saying commissioners are sworn to uphold the historic preservation ordinance, which he said doesn't allow the Biltmore to be demolished to build something new.
"Our ordinance and law is very clear that we have to preserve the hotel. We really don't have an option," Fowler said Wednesday.
Commissioners Tom Shelley and Mike Wilkinson supported the motion, citing concerns about height, unit size and density in the proposed ordinance.
Heisenbottle, who issued a news release ahead of Tuesday's meeting reaffirming his interest in the Biltmore, said his earlier offer fell through because a key investor backed out and he couldn't meet the Ades' 30-day closing request.
However, he said his firm now has a "solid commitment" for the majority of funding. He estimates the total cost to buy and renovate the hotel, plus the nearby Biltmore Golf Club, is $200 million.
Yet he wouldn't reveal his main investor, saying "it would make everyone feel much more comfortable, I'm sure, but there are certain things that need to be kept confidential until certain aspects are signed and closed."
He added that if Cheezem pulls out, "We would certainly like to continue our process and close ourselves."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.