Developer Mike Cheezem addresses the Belleair Commission about his plans for developing the Belleview Biltmore property.
BELLEAIR – Belleair Town commissioners voted unanimously to reconsider an ordinance that delayed a zoning change for the Belleview Biltmore property for six months.
The decision, at the commission meeting on Feb. 18, came after a lengthy discussion regarding the sale of part of the hotel land and discussion over creating yet another new zoning option for the property.
Town Hall was packed to overflowing with many people having to stand in the foyer to hear what was going on. The majority of those in attendance were there to support the sale of just over 2 acres of the hotel property to the adjacent Belleair Country Club. Hotel preservationists were against the sale, saying it would make it harder for a prospective buyer to buy the property.
The issue of the sale of the 2.3 acres became the dividing line between those who are fighting to save the Belleview Biltmore and those who want to move on and have the land developed into townhouses and condominiums.
Ed Shaughnessy, the general manager of the Country Club, made an impassioned plea for the commissioners to allow the sale of the land parcel.
“We have been good neighbors to the town of Belleair,” he said. “We are the town’s biggest taxpayers. When you had to run pipes under our property for a project, we let it happen. When you needed an easement for widening Belleview Boulevard, we said yes. When you needed a staging area for the equipment doing the Druid Road project, we let you on our land.”
Shaughnessy said acquiring the 2.3 acres for a parking lot was important for the club’s survival.
“When people show up for golf or to eat and can’t find a place to park they will just go somewhere else,” he said. “The Country Club is not bullet proof. Whenever there is a downturn in the economy a golf club membership is the first thing to go. This club has been a good neighbor and we should not be collaterally damaged by events which have nothing to do with us.”
Shaughnessy was referring to the ongoing battle over the future of the hotel. Opponents to the sale were quick to respond.
One resident, Tom Museau noted that the club was using that land as a parking lot anyway.
“There is no urgency for approving the sale tonight. They have always been using the land so why sell it now. Don’t take action on this,” he said.
Resident Karman Hayes urged the commissioners to deny the request.
“What a shame that we have 20 acres of beautiful green space and we want to cover it up with concrete,” she said.
Tom Kurey, a member of the town’s Finance Board, was in favor of the sale.
“Let’s stop the insanity. How is 2.3 acres going to detract from whatever is going to happen on that site by a developer.
And, perhaps expressing a view shared by many was resident Don Newman.
“Enough is enough, you have addressed this issue enough,” he said.
In fact the issue wasn’t whether to allow the sale, but changing the ordinance to permit the sale to go through. The ordinance stated that the H district, where the hotel sits, must be 20 acres in size. The Commissioners voted 4-1 to change the size to 17.5 acres, allowing the hotel owners to sell the 2.3 acres to the Country Club. Commissioner Stephen Fowler was the lone negative vote.
Fowler said he was voting against it because by taking away 2.3 acres from the property eliminated a potential 34 building units, which could be a problem for a prospective buyer.
Commissioners Tom Shelly and Michael Wilkinson both said the issue was one of property rights, with private owners having the right to sell to a private buyer.
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto said it was obvious to him that the majority of people favored the deal.
“Nothing has been said this evening which has shown the sale should be a detriment to the hotel property or to the town,” he said.
The next discussion centered on the creation of a new mixed use zoning district. The town’s planning consultant Dave Healy explained that the new designation would permit the construction of a hotel and residential units. He said the designation would allow a mixture of both plans, or one or the other. The proposed designation fit in perfectly with developer Mike Cheezem’s vision for what he wants to do with the property. He explained his plan to the commission. He said his plan was one, which should please all those involved in the debate.
“We would preserve a small portion of the hotel and make it part of a new boutique hotel,” he said. “We have spent the past few weeks doing due diligence and now we’re going to have a series of workshops involving the stakeholders. We will present our plan and in 45 days, if we have the support of the community, we will come back to the Commission for approval.
Cheezem said he wants to meet the needs of all parties involved in the debate and part of doing that would be to preserve some of the heritage of the hotel. But he injected a note of caution.
“Make no mistake; it does require the removal of the vast majority of the hotel. So commissioners tell me now if you approve of what we’re planning to do or we’ll step aside.”
RPD resident Jim White said it was apparent to him that it might be time for mediation to break the impasse in the ongoing debate over the hotel’s future.
“I don’t see a good solution if we all don’t work together,” he said. “It might be a good time for mediation. Perhaps this mixed use zoning designation might bring the parties together.”
Preservationist Rae Claire Johnson agreed.
“We welcome the chance to talk to Mr. Cheezem,” she said. “This town has been pitted against one another over this issue.”
Commissioner Michael Wilkinson agreed there should be some middle ground.
“We need to find compromise. I like Mr. Cheezem’s sense of community. If someone wants to come in and save the hotel, then they can.”
Mayor Gary Katica had the final word.
“This town has been split in half for as long as I have been on this Commission,” he said. “If the hotel could be saved then it would be great for the town; but with what we’ve heard tonight, isn’t that the way to go?”
Commissioners then approved unanimously a recommendation that staff proceed with developing the mixed use zoning designation. Then, moments later, they unanimously approved reconsideration of the RM-10 zoning designation, designed to pave the way for development of the hotel site. Initially a six-month delay of the RM-10 zoning threatened to derail development plans for the hotel property.
“We got something done tonight,” said Mayor Gary Katica.