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Lawsuit filed to stop sale of hotel land
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The land to the north of the Belleair Country Club is already used as a parking lot for the club but is owned by the hotel.
BELLEAIR – A lawsuit has been filed against the town of Belleair and the Belleair Country Club aimed at stopping the Country Club from buying just over two acres of hotel property for a parking lot.

The lawsuit was filed on Friday, March 25 by the Friends of the Biltmore, a non-profit organization with a goal to preserve the Belleview Biltmore hotel. Resident Rae Claire Johnson is the president of the organization.

The lawsuit contends that the town’s voting to reduce the acreage for the hotel from 20 acres to 15 was improperly done and should be set aside. The reasons set out in the document include the lack of a quasi-judicial hearing, which it states, should have been held.

“The parties must be able to present evidence,” the lawsuit said. “The parties have a right to cross examine witnesses and the parties must be informed of all the facts upon which the town Commissioners vote on the zoning request.”

Town Attorney David Ottinger said the meeting at which the zoning change passed first reading was not a quasi-judicial hearing.

“If they have a way of showing that it was, then I’d like to hear it,” he said. “It was the Town Commission passing an ordinance and is not an appealable event under the rules of the appellant procedure.”

Ottinger questioned whether there was any jurisdictional right to even bring the lawsuit.

“It is requesting a review of a purely legislative action, that of a town passing an ordinance. It was not a quasi-judicial hearing,” he said.

Town Manager Micah Maxwell was more to the point.

“We simply don’t agree with it,” he said. “It did not stop us from moving ahead with second reading of the ordinance.”

The second reading will be at the commission meeting April 1.

The lawsuit brought forward other issues relating to the town’s ordinance and the way it was handled at its last meeting. It was specific in pointing out that Johnson did not have adequate time to make her case against the ordinance, and it complained of the way she was treated at the meeting.

“While citizens opposing the zoning change were still in line at the lectern to speak, Mayor Gary H. Katica called for a vote on the zoning issue, cutting off a full and fair review and hearing,” it said. The petitioner, Johnson, “then had to wait until after the Town Commissioners had voted to adopt the proposed ordinance to use another 3 minutes which she was entitled to during the open session.”

The lawsuit states that Johnson then attempted to tell the commission that what they were doing was against the law.

“At that point she was rudely interrupted and repeatedly told to ‘sit down’ by the presiding chairperson, Mayor Gary Katica, thus depriving her of a meaningful unbiased opportunity to be heard in opposition,” the lawsuit states.

The core of the issue is the future of the hotel. The lawsuit states that by allowing the 2.3 acres to be sold will damage the future of the hotel, which needs the space to be viable.

“Shrinking the minimum size of the Hotel District from 20 to 15 acres, will irreparably harm the historic Belleview Biltmore Hotel Resort,” the suit said. “By depriving it of acreage essential to maintaining its required 2,045 parking spaces on its 20 acres and thus harm its viability as a commercial enterprise which it was through its period of operation from 1895 to 2009.”

The lawsuit then went on to ask the court to quash the town’s approval of the reduction of land size for the hotel district.

“The Petitioners move that this Court find that the vote to decrease the minimum acreage in the Hotel district was a vote based upon the request of the country club, who had no legal standing,” the lawsit said. “As the country club does not own the hotel property at issue, therefore the town failed to follow the essential requirements of law and such act was a gross miscarriage of justice.”

Attorney Ed Armstrong, who represents the Country Club in the matter, dismissed the suit out of hand.

“I think it should have no effect whatsoever,” he said. “It makes no sense that the country club is involved at all. It makes no sense. We believe the suit is without merit in laws or in fact.”

Armstrong said the sale of the land should go ahead uninterrupted despite the lawsuit.

“It should not hold up the sale of the land. It is a simple transaction,” he said. “It is uncomplicated and should take no more than two or thre business days to complete once all the red tape is ironed out.”

Armstrong also pointed out that the land, just to the north of the club, has been used as a parking lot of years.

“It is not changing,” he said. “Just the owners are changing.”

As for when this might all play out in court. Town Attorney Ottinger said once the town files a response, things will begin to happen.

“We will file a response then the court will decide if the case has any merit or not. If they decide it does have merit, then a court date will be set. We think there is a very good possibility the case will be dismissed,” he said.

Johnson doesn’t agree.

“I don’t think that is going to be the case,” she said. “It is a shame it has to come to this, but the commissioners must be held accountable.”
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