Rae Claire Johnson stands on a balcony above the Belleview Biltmore Hotel. She and others have filed suit aimed at saving the structure.
BELLEAIR – Community activist and preservationist Rae Claire Johnson is spearheading a lawsuit filed against the town of Belleair and the owners of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel. The lawsuit is aimed at preventing the hotel from being demolished and replaced with Condos and townhouses.
Johnson is joined in the suit by two RPD residents, Doris Hanson and Mary Lou White, whose standing in the suit is that their property values have dropped because of the deteriorating condition of the hotel. Residents of the Residential Planned Development, located around the hotel, have long complained of the condition of the property.
Johnson is the president of the Friends of the Biltmore Inc., the nonprofit organization formed to preserve the century old structure.
The lawsuit seeks to stop the sale of the hotel to Developer Mike Cheezem who has a six-month option on the property and who plans to demolish it and replace it with a small hotel and residential units.
Johnson, who has appeared and spoken at just about every commission meeting opposing zoning changes and other events surrounding the hotel property, said the lawsuit in federal court reiterates much of what she has been saying all along. She hopes the court action will get the attention of the mayor and commissioners and the Ades brothers, owners of the property.
“The town is not following the law; they are circumventing the law,” she said. “In order to make zoning changes they must do it in a quasi-judicial hearing, which they did not. They are trying to say it is a legislative matter, one which can be dealt with by the commission, and clearly it is not.”
Johnson wants to stop what she calls the “demolition by neglect” of the hotel. She said the owners have done nothing to stop the deterioration of the building and that the National Historic Preservation Act mandates that properties on the list of Historic Places, such as the Biltmore, must be kept in good condition.
“The roof could be fixed for $250,000,” she said. “Nevertheless, the way the building looks has nothing to do with the structural soundness of the hotel.”
Johnson also said the sale of 2.3 acres of hotel property to the adjacent Belleair Country Club should not have happened and only serves to give the Ades brothers more reason not to try to save the hotel.
“They can now say there isn’t enough land left for parking,” she said.
Both defendants in the case say the lawsuit is without merit.
“We will vigorously defend ourselves,” said Ed Armstrong the attorney representing the Ades brothers. “We don’t believe this action will hold things up and from our standpoint the sooner it gets to court the better.”
Town Attorney David Ottinger was even stronger in his comments.
“The complaint has innumerable incorrect statements of fact and false allegations,” he said. “The claims appear to have little or no legal basis and do not appear to be matters that should be decided by the federal court.”
Ottinger also said he was upset with some of the allegations outlined in the suit.
“I find most disturbing and insulting the allegations that the commissioners have conflicts of interests and violated the Sunshine Law. That is absolutely not the case,” he said. “The record will reflect that the town commission, every step of the way, has done everything possible to facilitate the preservation of the hotel.”
Johnson openly questioned Ottinger’s abilities
“Our town attorney doesn’t have the experience to guide the town through this,” she said.
Johnson said the entire debate over the fate of the hotel, apart from the historical part of it, comes down to taxpayers’ money.
“The town is looking at another $10 million investment for a water plant,” she said. “If we don’t keep the hotel then there will be an increase in taxes that will fall directly on the shoulders of the taxpayers. If we keep the hotel there will be lots of tax money generated for the years ahead. Financially it makes no sense not to keep the hotel.”
None of the parties involved know when the matter will actually get to court or how long it will take to play out. If no injunction is issued to stop any activity, Ottinger says things will just move along as normal.