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Further delay from lawsuit puts Biltmore at risk

The 112-year-old Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa now is closed to guests in preparation for what promises to be a years-long process to restore the historic hotel and expand its facilities. This project that is so close to the heart of history-loving Pinellas residents hopefully will not be delayed by three residents further pursuing their failed lawsuit against the project.

Fred Thomas, Robert Swinehart and Scott Spencer sued the town of Belleair and the owner of the hotel, Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, because they disagreed with some of the owner's plans. Legg Mason wants to preserve and restore the existing hotel, which is one of the biggest wooden structures in the world and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The three residents sued after a May 20, 2008, Town Commission meeting at which the hotel asked for seven variances and approval of its site plan. The quasi-judicial public hearing went on until the middle of the night and involved hours of witness testimony and grilling by attorneys representing various sides. Yet the three residents argued that they did not get the due process to which they were entitled, they weren't allowed enough time to speak and the commission's approval of the site plan and variances did not meet certain legal standards. They particularly disliked the height and location of a planned spa building.

Late last month, the appellate division of the 6th Judicial Circuit Court ruled against the three residents in a straightforward opinion that cedes no ground to the petitioners.

"This Court is satisfied that the Commission accorded sufficient minimum due process to all parties," the court stated in its ruling. The court also stated that "there is competent substantial evidence to support the Commission's decision" to approve the project and variances.

Any objective person who attended the public hearing and witnessed the hours of testimony and cross-examination of witnesses would not be surprised by the court's decision.

Now, the three residents have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the appellate court's decision. It is hoped they will not. The appellate court opens no potential line of argument for the petitioners, and pushing the case to the next level will only further burden the taxpayers, who are funding the town's defense, and Legg Mason, which already faces the problem of a soured economy and tight credit markets. Some hotel supporters have been worried that Legg Mason might delay the restoration because of the twin challenges of financing projects in the current economy while also fighting a legal battle. There is no indication so far that the company plans to delay.

Meanwhile, hurricane season has begun and the Belleview Biltmore stands tattered and weakened by age and lack of recent substantial maintenance. The hotel is a national treasure, and the work to strengthen and restore it needs to proceed post haste. Some Pinellas residents may recall what happened to another historic Pinellas hotel, the Vinoy, which stood boarded up and rat-infested for a decade, an eyesore on the St. Petersburg waterfront, before restoration finally began. The Biltmore, because it is a wood structure, could not so easily withstand a long delay.

The residents who sued over the town's support of the project exercised their legal rights and now have an answer from the courts that their case is without merit. To further delay the project only puts the treasured "White Queen of the Gulf" at risk.

Further delay from lawsuit puts Biltmore at risk 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 2:10pm]
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