The Belleair Town Hall is packed again as the Commission talks about the fate of the Belleview Biltmore hotel.
BELLEAIR – Town commissioners are going to reconsider their earlier decision to delay action on a proposed new zoning category, clearly aimed at the property where the Belleview Biltmore Hotel now stands.
At a meeting Feb. 4, Belleair Commissioners agreed to bring the issue back for reconsideration after a large crowd, mainly supporters of the new zoning designation, urged them to do so.
The new zoning, RM-10, proposed would limit the number of housing units that could be built on an acre of land to 10. Currently RM-15 is the lowest density. Hotel preservationists see the zoning as giving developers an easier path to demolishing the hotel.
Once again the Town Hall was filled to capacity with people both for and against the issue. However, the early speakers were clearly in favor of the new zoning regulations and brought along supporters, most of them from the RPD Homeowner's Association. They displayed their numbers when speaker Tom Dupont asked all those in favor of reconsidering the new regulations to stand up. A vast majority of those in attendance stood.
Dupont, the head of the Belleview Island Homeowners Association, said the issue of the new zoning wasn’t about taxes or politics.
“This is about character,” he said. “This is about integrity, this is about vision, this is about mission, this is about community.”
Dupont said the hotel is not the heart and soul of Belleair as many have said. He said the heart and soul of the town is the Town Hall and the Dimmitt Community Center where the future is planned and where it is growing. He said the new zoning is about giving the town another option.
“It is about having an acceptable option for the 21 acres that are now surrounded by chain-link fencing, littered with trash, accented with rotting balconies, boarded up windows and collapsing roofs,” he said.
Planning and Zoning Board Member Randy Ware admonished the commissioners for delaying a decision on the zoning designation in the first place.
“I want to take this opportunity to remind you that as elected officials you cannot govern from a position of fear, nor can you govern through avoidance,” he said. “You did both on Jan. 2. You accomplished nothing, you wasted the time and efforts of the town staff not to mention the time and effort of your Planning and Zoning Board.”
Resident Karla Rettstatt urged reconsideration of the zoning designation because efforts to preserve the hotel have gone nowhere.
“Has this commission or a previous one ever stood in the way of the preservation of the hotel? No. The town officials have been very accommodating,” she said. “The town granted easements, variances, and tax incentives. We have waited patiently for over five years for Mr. Heisenbottle to purchase the hotel property. How much longer are you willing to wait?”
Not everyone was in favor of re-visiting the zoning issue. Rae Claire Johnson suggested that the hotel, if preserved, would bring more tax revenue then townhomes or condos and feared that the zoning change could have implications that might affect the entire town.
RPD resident Karmen Hayes answered critics who have wondered why Architect Richard Heisenbottle hasn’t come forward with any money.
“They say show us the money. Well, we haven’t seen any money from Cheezem the developer,” she said. “He wanted a six-month free look but he hasn’t put up any money. The commission always wants to see the money; I don’t see any money from him either.”
Hayes was referring to developer Mike Cheezem of JMC Communities who proposed to buy the hotel property and close on the deal in six months after he had time to be sure his plans could happen.
Several commissioners said they had spoken to Cheezem and said he shared his plans for the property with them. Those plans included saving a part of the hotel, but also building another hotel, a boutique hotel, on the property. To do that the property would have to be rezoned mixed use. That might be possible as two of the three commissioners who voted for the delay seemed prepared to change their vote.
Commissioner Michael Wilkinson said he had to answer several questions that people had been asking him since he voted for the delay.
“I have lived here for 20 years and I truly believe the hotel is what would be best for the town,” he said. “But how long do we have to wait for it, that’s what keeps me up at night. I would welcome discussion involving a mixed-use zoning. More residents seem to want to move on and I would be in favor of moving on. I don’t want to wait for six months.”
Commissioner Tom Shelly, who also voted for the delay, also seemed ready to reconsider.
“I’m OK with that. I’d like it added to the agenda,” he said.
The third commissioner who voted for the delay, Vice Mayor Stephen Fowler, eventually said he agreed with revisiting the issue at the next meeting, but not before having words with Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto, who accused Fowler of sending a bad message when, at the last meeting, he asked staff to see whether or not the town could legally pursue an injunction preventing prospective buyers from demolishing the hotel.
Fowler said he met with Cheezem and told him that all he wanted to do by delaying the RM-10 designation was give Cheezem some time to develop a plan for the property which the town could then act upon.
Piccarreto then remarked that it was the commissioners who should be setting the standard and saying how they wanted their town to look.
“Let’s have a vote on this and be the leaders we’ve been elected to be,” he said.
Commissioners agreed that at the next meeting on Feb. 18 there will be a resolution on reopening the RM-10 zoning issue and another item to discussion of a mixed-use zoning designation.
“We’ve accomplished something tonight,” said Mayor Gary Katica.