When the 111-year-old Belleview Biltmore Hotel was being modified by a clueless Japanese owner, when its roof tiles were blowing off, when the paint was peeling and window screens falling out of the battered window frames, when there was a proposal to tear it down, people who love this piece of Pinellas history were desperate for a savior to arrive.
You wouldn't have sensed either desperation or gratitude if you had been in the room Tuesday when the Belleair Town Commission conducted a hearing on the site plan and variance requests of Legg Mason Real Estate Investors Inc., the company that purchased the hotel last year and wants to restore it.
Instead, you would have seen a procession of well-suited lawyers and experts pick the plans apart on behalf of clients who oppose the plans or some portion of them. You would have seen a defensive development team trying to hold on to its temper. And you would have heard an audience that grumbled and booed and exhibited a foul mood all evening.
The headline on a St. Petersburg Times story about the meeting aptly described it as A Biltmore battle royal.
There are several reasons why the vibe in the room was less than celebratory.
First, the Legg Mason plan is extremely complex, and complicated development plans have a way of making people both grumpy and suspicious.
Second, Legg Mason doesn't just want to restore the existing hotel, though that would be complicated enough because the hotel is one of the largest wood structures in the world and on the National Register of Historic Places. Legg Mason also plans a lot of new construction to transform the property into a four- or five-star resort that will attract lots more tourists. That's bound to stir emotions, especially in a town with a population of less than 5,000.
Legg Mason aims to restore the existing hotel; add on a new ballroom, lobby and kitchen facilities; build a hotel annex east of the main hotel; build a new day spa; put all parking under ground; build a poolside cafe and wedding gazebo; renovate and add to the hotel's golf club; build a new entrance road and bridge; and add lush landscaping and walking trails.
Some opponents think that's just too much. They would prefer to just have the old hotel restored. Legg Mason argues that the hotel property must meet the standards of today's discriminating resort guests to survive.
To accomplish all this, Legg Mason asked Belleair for seven variances from town code requirements. Some, such as reducing the length of parking spaces by 2 feet or making a couple of buildings a few feet taller than codes allow, raised little concern.
But two of the variance requests drew well-funded opponents. Legg Mason's request to make the new hotel annex 60 feet tall rather than the allowed 32 feet irritated the neighboring Belleair Country Club, which would have its view disrupted by the tall structure. The club hired local land use attorney Ed Armstrong to argue against the variance.
Legg Mason also wanted a huge variance from the code requirements for parking. Belleair's code calls for 2,075 spaces. The developer wanted to provide only 635, claiming Belleair's code is out of whack for resorts. Fred Thomas, a wealthy businessman who lives in a condo alongside the old hotel, predicted major parking problems and hired local attorney Alan Zimmet to fight the variance.
Armstrong and Zimmet methodically questioned and cross examined Legg Mason officials, their architect and their parking consultant, arguing that Legg Mason had not met the standards for the variances. The questions were pointed, and soon the audience was booing the lawyers and even shouting out, "This isn't a courtroom!"
That brings us to the third likely reason for the negative tone Tuesday night: Many in the audience didn't seem to understand that the proceeding was a quasi-judicial hearing, and state and local law require that such hearings be conducted according to strict rules of evidence and procedure, much like in a courtroom. Deviation from those rules can result in decisions being overturned.
It might have helped reduce the audience crankiness factor if the mayor or city attorney had taken time at the beginning of the meeting to educate the audience about quasi-judicial hearings, but at times both the mayor and attorney seemed uncertain of the proper procedures themselves — a common problem in small towns that don't often deal with such complicated projects.
As the evening wore on, frustration mixed with exhaustion, people snapped at each other, the bottled water ran out, and the metal folding chairs got harder. Finally, the Belleair Country Club compromised with Legg Mason: The hotel annex will be 50 feet tall, not 60. With the clock clicking past 2:30 a.m., the Town Commission approved all the variance requests, including the one for parking, but the victors were too exhausted to do anything other than stagger home.
That's okay. The celebration is best left for later anyway. The economy is struggling, the credit markets are tough, gas prices are high, tourism is flagging, and someone could still appeal the commission's variance decisions. Legg Mason may be the savior we were waiting for, but we shouldn't breathe easy until the construction is under way.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address