BELLEAIR – With a 4-1 vote Belleair Commissioners approved the establishment of a new zoning designation, aimed specifically at the property occupied by the Belleview Biltmore Hotel.
Commissioner Stephen Fowler was the only one who voted against the zoning. All along he has been critical of the new designation.
The new zoning is known as RM-10 and it allows potential developers of the hotel property to produce plans with only 10 living units per acre on the 20-acre site. Up until now the fewest number of units permitted was 15 and city officials felt that was too many and would have been a detriment to the high-end development of the property.
In addition to the number of units per acre, and what will no doubt be attractive to a developer, is the loosening of the height requirements in the new zoning area. Buildings up to 80 feet will be permitted as long as the average height of the buildings on the property remains at 48 feet. Also the minimum size of the units must be 1,500 square feet.
The debate over the RM-10 zoning has been going on for months. Hotel preservationists have been against it, saying it will only spur on the demolition of the hotel and promote new development. Those in favor of the new zoning say it is important to attract respected developers in the event efforts to save the hotel fail.
Currently, St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem has a contract to purchase the property and is in the midst of doing what he called due diligence into the property. He has spoken favorably about the RM-10 designation.
The second reading of the ordinance approving the new designation took place at the Commission meeting on April 15. Once again there was a packed hall, evenly split between the two sides. The preservationists were on the left, the others on the right. One after the other they spoke in favor or against the proposed ordinance, saying much the same things they said at previous meetings on the topic.
Jim White, the president of the RPD Homeowners association, reminded the commission that his executive board, which represents 553 condo owners, passed a resolution in favor of the RM-10 zoning.
“I am comfortable that the vast majority of our homeowners support the RM-10,” he said. “It is an alternative we need to have in place.”
Jim Betts, a resident of the RPD, took issue with what White had to say.
“At no time was there a referendum or a survey on the issue taken,” he said. “I know the majority of the people in my building support the hotel. I urge you to pay little attention to the recommendation of the RPD Board.”
Just as quickly RPD resident Tom duPont dismissed Betts’ comments.
“The residents were surveyed by the presidents of each condo group,” he said. “All the presidents were instructed to poll their residents, and if Mr. Betts’ president didn’t do it, then he has a problem with him.”
DuPont then spoke on behalf of the RM-10.
“It is a viable alternative for the owners of the hotel. It is giving them opportunities which are good for them and good for the town of Belleair,” he said.
Mayor Gary Katica then interrupted the speakers, took the portable microphone, stepped away from his chair and stood before the crowd.
“It is not easy for us to sit up here and watch the citizens of this town tear themselves apart,” he said. “I want to give you an example of what we have been dealing with. Richard Heisenbottle had until October to come up with $200,000 to secure his contract with the owners. He failed to do so. Then I got a call from Daniel Ades, the owner, who told me he would never deal with Heisenbottle again because he broke the contract and didn’t come up with the money.”
Heisenbottle is the Miami-area Architect who hopes to buy the hotel and refurbish it.
“Then two weeks ago today I got a call from Richard Heisenbottle, who wanted to meet with me before the meeting. I agreed, and in my office he had a manila envelope and from it he took a piece of paper and said it was a commitment for $200 million. But he wouldn’t show it to me, he put it back,” he said.
“I asked him what the hell this was, another dog and pony show? He wanted me to arrange for him to meet with Cheezem, I told him that wasn’t my job. He could arrange his own meeting with Cheezem.”
A short time later, Charles Kropke, one of Heisenbottle’s partners, reminded the mayor that they told him they only had 30 days to close the deal.
“Anyone knows that a deal of this magnitude, this complex, can’t be closed in 30 days,” he said. “I just want to clarify what was said at that meeting.”
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto then asked Kropke how the RM-10 designation would affect their plans for the hotel.
Piccarreto repeatedly accused Kropke of not answering his question and each time Kropke said the RM-10 would promote the demolition of the hotel.
After an hour of residents having their say it was then the turn of the commissioners to have theirs.
Fowler led the way, saying he opposed the RM-10 because it was too restrictive and a future discussion on a mixed-use zoning for the area was more exciting.
“RM-10 doesn’t allow for anything but housing,” he said. “Mixed use will give us far more opportunities.”
The other commissioners all spoke in favor of the RM-10 designation, as did Katica.
“We sit here representing all the people,” he said. “Each year we lose $800,000 in taxes while that hotel sits empty, not to mention the people of the RPD who have lost plenty on their home values because of the empty hotel. It is into the millions. We are here to make decisions based on information from people who we believe in.”
All except Fowler voted for the ordinance, which is now law.
Discussion and debate over the mixed-use zoning proposal will take place in the weeks ahead with first reading at the May 20 meeting and second reading at the June 17 meeting.