The Belleair town hall auditorium is filled with about 200 proponents and opponents Jan. 21 of a proposed zoning change, which would have paved the way for townhouse development on the Belleview Biltmore property.
BELLEAIR – Belleair commissioners decided to delay a decision on creating a new zoning designation for six months. The decision to postpone the decision came after a three-hour meeting in a packed auditorium with 50 speakers having something to say about the hotel one way or the other.
At issue was creating a new RM-10 zoning designation. If approved it would have restricted the number of housing units to be built on an acre of land to 10. The new designation was designed specifically for the 22 acres occupied by the hotel, although two other parcels on land in town could also fall into that category. Those two parcels are already built out, leaving the Belleview Biltmore property as the only target for the new zoning regulation. In fact the current owners of the property have praised the new zoning proposal as something that would help develop the property.
Despite that Town Manager Micah Maxwell made it clear that the issue was about the zoning regulation and not the fate of the hotel and after each of the 50 speakers issued a verbal disclaimer.
“I remind you this conversation is about the new zoning regulation and not the fate of the hotel, which will be discussed at another time in a quasi-judicial hearing,” he said.
Time and time again he uttered the phrase, often to laughter from the 200 people in the hall.
The first person up to speak at the meeting was Jim White the president of the RPD Homeowners association. That group had already indicated its approval of the new zoning regulations, but White said there was some misunderstanding circulating around town.
“The RPD Homeowners did not endorse taking down the hotel.” He said. “We did endorse the RM-10 Zoning. The deteriorating property is causing concern among RPD residents and we just want something positive to happen.”
The residents have often spoken out about their property values dropping because of the unsightliness of the hotel. With the large crowd and the promise of many intending to speak, Mayor Gary Katica made it clear that the three-minute rule would be strictly enforced. He was tested early.
The second speaker, preservationist Rae Claire Johnson, stood and challenged the three-minute time limit, saying she was there to speak on behalf of several others who gave over their allotted time to her. She was told there was no such provision in the rules allowing that and was restricted to the three minutes. She wasn’t happy.
“This discussion is going to have an adverse effect on all residents of Belleair,” she said. “The town officials only talked to the residents of the RPD about what might happen on the property to the talk tonight is illegal. It is violating the ordinance that protects the hotel.”
Johnson received applause from a portion of the crowd when she finished, as did the next speaker, Lewis Dale, who spoke on the other side of the issue.
“For a decade I’ve heard both pro and con about saving the hotel,” he said. “I understand the attachment to the hotel but it is evident the cost of restoring it is beyond the capacity of any serious developer. There has been more than ample time for those who want to restore the hotel to come forward.”
Back and forth it went.
Resident Laurie Adams was against the new zoning regulation.
“Why are we even here?” she asked. “Help broker a deal between the owners and the preservationists to save the hotel. If we change the zoning, aren’t we saying we want condos at the expense of the hotel?”
Resident Randy Ware, a member of the Planning and Zoning Board, spoke for the change and against some of the things he heard during the debate.
“I find the suggestion that there was some improper influence exerted on the board or the commission reprehensible,” he said. “No one has actually stepped up to do anything with the hotel. Times have changed. It is no longer a waterfront property; it is not the heart and soul of this town. It is no longer a treasure. I encourage you to vote for the new zoning.”
Throughout the evening reference was often made to Richard Heisenbottle, the Miami-area architect who has said he wants to buy the hotel to save it. The attorney, representing the hotel owners, the Ades brothers of Miami, said Heisenbottle was no longer in play. Ed Armstrong told the crowd that Heisenbottle failed to meet his contractual obligation to the Ades brothers.
“Heisenbottle had years to do something. He made lots of promises, but no money,” he said. “He wanted extension after extension after extension. My clients were gracious and gave him the extensions even when he didn’t come up with the $200,000 deposit. Then in October, as a goodwill gesture, my client gave him another 30 days in exchange for a non-refundable deposit. Heisenbottle agreed and said, you have my word Daniel (Ades), you have my word.”
In response to that Commissioner Stephen Fowler read a letter from Heisenbottle to the commission. In it Heisenbottle expressed confidence that a new partner, Gary Rosenberg, would be able to help get the necessary financing. Heisenbottle said in the letter that he had been in touch with Daniel Ades about a deal but Ades insisted on a 30-day closing period, something Heisenbottle claimed was too difficult. He noted that the new buyer, JMC Communities, has been given six months to get their affairs in order.
The head of JMC, Mike Cheezem, was at the meeting and told the crowd that part of that six months would be taken up talking to residents and officials to make sure that what he intended to put on the property was suitable for all. He did say the hotel would have to go.
“I would not be here if I thought the hotel was viable,” he said.
Then it was time for the Commissioners to vote. Mayor Gary Katica reminded the crowd that it was not an easy decision.
“We want what is best for the town,” he said. “It would be best if the hotel was restored, but we are losing $800,000 a year in lost taxes and the people in the RPD have paid a toll in lost property values.”
Fowler, who had said he wasn’t comfortable with the new zoning proposal, indicated he wasn’t going to vote for it.
“Belleair is not broken,” he said. “We don’t need new laws to fix what we have. I think the town should pursue an injunction to prevent anyone who wants to buy the property to build townhouses on it from doing so.”
Then he proposed the motion delaying any decision on the new zoning for six months. Commissioner Michael Wilkinson seconded the motion and they were joined by Commissioner Tom Shelley in voting for the delay. Katica and Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto voted against the delay.
Following the meeting Cheezem, when asked what impact the delay would have on his plans to buy the hotel, said simply: “We’ll have to digest it and go from there.”
Armstrong said the decision would have little impact on his clients, the Ades brothers.
“They will continue to own the property,” he said. “The delay is not helping anyone.”