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Belleview Biltmore one of five biggest preservation losses on national list

BELLEAIR — The demolition of an iconic hotel and the legal battle waged to try to save it has put the Belleview Biltmore Hotel on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's top 10 Wins and Losses List for 2015.

Built in 1897 along Clearwater Harbor, the 400-room Biltmore played host to royalty and business magnates before closing in 2009.

In May 2014, activist group Friends of the Belleview Biltmore filed a federal lawsuit attempting to block the hotel's sale to, and demolition by, St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem.

The lawsuit, led by activists Rae Claire Johnson, Doris Hanson and Mary Lou White, accused Belleair commissioners of nepotism and collusion in the hotel's sale by ignoring the town's preservation ordinance.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in November 2014, and Cheezem began demolition of the 820,000-square-foot structure this year to make way for 132 condominiums and townhomes.

Elizabeth S. Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust, called the Biltmore's demolition a "failure of justice" because the activists and staff of the National Trust involved in other lawsuits to stop the demolition were unable to present their full argument.

"The legal system failed to provide a remedy for what we felt was a really strong legal argument," Merritt said. "The local people in the town should be concerned that their local government was willing to kind of sell their town's heritage to the highest bidder, essentially."

Cheezem said his project, which is salvaging 118-year-old heart pine floors, stained-glass skylights and other fixtures, is a way to preserve the spirit of the resort, even though deterioration made it impossible to save the entire structure.

The Biltmore's original lobby and three floors of rooms will be remodeled into a 33-room boutique inn for weddings and events at the center of the condominium project.

"To me, we are making a significant effort and are saving the history and the spirit of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel," he said.

Cheezem said as developers bought surrounding land over the years, the resort shrunk from 250 acres to 17 and lost waterfront access. It had eight different owners since 1985, and none could transform it back to its glory days, especially as the aging structure began deteriorating.

Demolition is about 60 percent complete, and construction on the condominiums will begin in early summer, Cheezem said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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