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The County Commission decides on "a huge diversion" from policy.
Published Jun. 27, 2012

Plans to restore the historic Belleview Biltmore hotel have inched another step closer to reality.

The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday granted Belleair the authority to begin planning a Community Redevelopment Area encompassing the 20-acre hotel property.

The vote only permits Belleair officials to develop a proposal, and they will have to appear before the commission again to receive its final blessing.

A CRA is an area singled out for special revitalization efforts, and special tax policies apply.

Recent plans to rehab the Belleview Biltmore hotel, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, have been under serious discussion since April, when Richard Heisenbottle, a Coral Gables architect, signed a contract to purchase it. Before that point, it appeared likely that the hotel would be demolished.

Though they green-lighted Belleair officials' request to proceed with their planning for a CRA, county commissioners were careful to say that their vote did not represent an endorsement, and several questioned whether current guidelines would allow them to approve the final proposal.

The commission has traditionally approved CRAs in downtowns. The Belleview Biltmore is not in a downtown.

"This is a huge diversion from our normal policy," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "And there's a further issue here ... this is private property, and you would have to gauge whether a public purpose was being served."

Heisenbottle said there was no question that if the Victorian hotel was restored and reopened, residents would benefit.

"This is a really critical project for all of you," he said. "Over 10 years, just in rough estimates, this county may receive as much as $75 million in taxes from this hotel ... The job creation is absolutely outstanding."

If the commission does eventually sign off on the creation of a CRA, the designation would direct any additional property taxes collected on rising values of the property to the restoration project. The funding would help cover construction costs, Heisenbottle said, adding that if the commission does not approve the redevelopment area designation by September, the project could fail.

On June 6, Belleair officials declared the hotel blighted, one of many steps that must be taken to create a CRA.

Micah Maxwell, Belleair town manager, said he expects officials to decide whether to propose a redevelopment area by July 17.