BELLEAIR – Private property rights prevailed at the Belleair Commission’s meeting April 1 in a land-development code dispute involving Belleview Biltmore hotel property.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a change in the minimum lot area for the hotel district from 20 acres to 17.5 acres. The change would reduce the minimum size of the hotel district from 20 to 15 acres.
The Belleair Country Club, which sought the change in the code, intends to buy 2.32 acres of property from the current hotel owners to accommodate their parking needs.
Mayor Gary Katica said that after sitting down recently with a developer, Richard Heisenbottle, who wants to preserve the hotel, “at this point, it’s not the town that’s involved. It’s between him and Mr. (Mike) Cheezem,” he said.
Cheezem has a contract with the current hotel owners to come up with a development plan in the next six months. Cheezem’s proposal is to demolish the hotel and build townhouses or condos on the property.
“At this late hour, that’s where it’s at. We are literally out of the picture,” Katica said.
Katica said he always felt that hotel preservation would be “a terrific thing … but at this late hour to unravel what’s gone on, I don’t know how it could be done.”
Commissioner Stephen Fowler complimented the Country Club on being a great neighbor, but he questioned how a parking lot “on 2.3 acres on a bluff in the finest property in Pinellas County could generate any more tax revenue to the town than 25 townhomes or a 120-unit auxiliary hotel.”
“I just don’t think that 250 cars are going to generate a tax revenue that comes even close to what a residential or hotel development could be there,” he said.
“We are talking about a prime piece of property where we are going to put 225 cars. We are paving over paradise and putting in a parking lot,” Fowler said.
Regarding Fowler’s suggestion that a parking garage should be built on the Country Club’s property, Katica said one of the most “ungodly sights is a parking garage.”
“Look what’s happened to Clearwater Beach,” he said.
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto said there are many alternatives for the Country Club, “but it’s their choice.”
“There’s a willing buyer. There’s a willing seller. It’s a private party issue,” he said. “Plain and simple.”
Commissioners Tom Shelly and Michael Wilkinson expressed similar comments.
The proposed change brought many townsfolk to the podium, both for and against Cheezem’s plans to demolish the hotel and build townhouses as well as the proposed sale of hotel property to the Country Club.
Ed Shaughnessy, the general manager of the Belleair Country Club, said he feels that the club has been a good community neighbor for more than the 17 years he’s worked for the business.
“The strategic importance of this additional land is absolutely critical to the Belleair Country Club,” he said.
The club has suffered losses. During the economic downturn in 2007 and 2008, the Country Club lost a lot of members, severely impacting the club’s financials, he said.
Instead of planning to build a parking garage at more costs to the Country Club’s members, the club wants to buy land that’s been used for parking for decades, Shaughnessy said.
“If you want to see it look more like a formal garden, let us take it over and properly landscape it,” he said.
Heisenbottle, a Miami architect, said months ago that he was prepared to buy the Biltmore property and preserve the hotel, but representatives of the current owners of the property, the Ades Brothers, said it didn’t happen. Heisenbottle continues to pursue preservation.
“We came here today to let you know the Belleview Biltmore Partners does have funding to move forward with this project once and for all,” Heisenbottle said.
He said his company is prepared to be a good neighbor to the Country Club, build a parking garage over its parking lot and negotiate other matters if “this hotel is ever to become what it was dreamt of in those meetings that we sat in so many years ago.”
Belleair planning consultant Dave Healey explained that the land code change would not reduce the potential viability of a resort hotel. Officials found the average parcel size for five other resort hotels in the county is 9 to 12 acres. The average number of rooms on those properties ranged from 310 to 375 motel rooms.
Healey said the minimum lot size of 17.5 acres and permitted density could allow for a hotel of 490-rooms.
“This is a greater number of rooms that have ever existed on the current property …,” Healey said.
Town officials say there is no current development proposal on the site and to complete such a transaction, the owner would have to apply for a major site plan and the town would have to hold a quasi-judicial hearing to decide whether to allow for the property separation.
The commission’s tentative approval of ordinance at the March 25 meeting spurred a lawsuit filed by the Friends of the Biltmore, a nonprofit organization striving to preserve the Biltmore.
The suit contends that the town’s voting to reduce the acreage for the hotel was improperly done, but town officials disagree.
Rae Claire Johnson, president of the organization, said if the 2.3 acres is sold to the Country Club, the hotel will not have enough property to serve events.
“It needs every possibility it has to generate as much revenue, which means as many people in the building at any one time, and that means we need the parking to do it,” Johnson said.
She said the issue doesn’t have anything to do with parking for the Country Club.
“I believe it is an issue to subdivide the property so they can build condos, which we do not need in Belleair. This is supposed to be a residential family community.”
Jim White spoke on behalf of the RPD board, which represents 553 units.
At the RPD board’s last meeting, he said, he presented a resolution in support of the ordinance, which he hoped the commission would approve.
Former Town Commissioner Karla Rettstatt said Belleair has a “good partner and a good neighbor” in the Belleair Country Club.
The Belleair Country Club is the top taxpayer in Belleair and has participated in many charitable events around the county and in Belleair, she said.
“The BCC keeps its property in pristine condition, which adds the ambiance to the town,” she said.
Ed Armstrong, an attorney who represents Cheezem’s company, JMC Communities, said his clients have three things.
“They have a contract to buy the land. They have credibility, and they have cash. There’s really not a lot else to talk about. This question has been beaten to death,” he said.