Historic hotel revisited in opening of new inn
Town officials were beaming Dec 5 as The Belleview Inn opened.
Two years in the making, the ribbon was cut Dec. 5, marking the official preservation of 38,000 square feet of the original Belleview Biltmore Hotel.
The years of debate, lawsuits and meetings over the fate of the historic hotel came to an end in 2016 when the Belleair Commission gave the green light to developer Mike Cheezem of JMC Communities to demolish the hotel, which was built in 1897.
Cheezem’s plan was to build townhouses and condominiums on the site; soon after he came forward with the idea of saving the original wing of the old hotel. His idea seemed almost impossible.
He proposed to raise those 38,000 square feet of buildings, rotate them and move them 300 feet to the center of his planned development. The impossible turned into the possible and the job was done; a job according to Cheezem.
The new inn contains 35 rooms. Guests will walk on the original flooring salvaged from the old hotel. They will dine under the original stained glass in the Tiffany Room and walk up the original grand staircase in the lobby.
The history of the place was not lost on Cheezem, who in his remarks prior to the official opening leaned quite heavily on the past and the vision of Henry Plant who built the original hotel as a place for the guests of his railroad.
“I’m thrilled to be part of his vision,” said Cheezem. “This was the lifeblood of the town of Belleair and of the state. It is a living piece of history.”
Cheezem recalled why Plant brought guests to the hotel.
“To experience the natural beauty of this area,” he said. “To provide a restful place to have a moment with the people we love.”
Among the dozens of people milling about in the lobby was Belleair Commissioner Michael Wilkinson.
Wilkinson admitted he was sad to see the original hotel go, but he was pleased at what he was seeing at the opening of the new Inn.
“It is amazing, amazing,” he said. “It has exceeded what I thought it would be.’
Pelican Golf Club takes shape
A series of town commission actions June 19 cleared the way for the Pelican Golf Club to proceed with expansion plans.
As at their meeting June 7 when commissioners gave preliminary approval to additional development on the property, there were no objections from the public.
The proposal includes about 1.13 acres of existing residential property adjacent to the golf course along Althea Road and Golf View Drive, which was recently acquired by the developer. To connect the parcels to the existing golf course, developers asked that the commission vacate that portion of the right of way abutting the parcels.
The proposed expansion is to allow for the addition of enhanced practice greens, development of a 2,754-square-foot Golf Learning Center and the addition of two 3,800-square-foot cottages for overnight accommodations for members of the club.
Commissioners gave final approval to two ordinances to accommodate the golf club’s request.
Company officials hope the golf course will be in use beginning in January.
New police chief named
Rick Doyle was sworn in as the town’s new police chief at City Commission meeting Nov. 20.
Doyle was selected following a search to replace outgoing Chief Bill Sohl, who retired after a 44-year career in law enforcement, 11 with the Belleair Department and four years as chief.
Doyle joined the department in 2007, then he left for a time for the Forsythe County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia where he joined the command staff and served as major and director of operations.
He rejoined the Belleair Department in 2007 and served as the lead code enforcement officer before becoming chief.
In introducing his new chief to the community, Town Manager J.P. Murphy was almost apologetic for taking so long to appoint Doyle. He indicated he knew all along Doyle was the man for the job.
“We knew we had the right guy,” he said. “But we had to be 100 percent sure. We had to go through the interview process.”
Sohl, 66, said in an interview that it was just time to go.
“It is a good time,” he said. “My wife and I have other plans and if we don’t do it now we may never get around to doing it.”
“I have mixed feelings. I’ve always liked being a police officer, I love Belleair and I hate to leave the town and the job but now is the time,” he said.
Sohl has been in law enforcement for 44 years, most of that with the St. Petersburg Police Department.
During that part of his career he spent considerable time training other officers from all over Pinellas County. That was evident at his recent going-away party as dozens of officers came to wish him well. For over an hour he was unable to move more than 2 feet away from the door as those officers swarmed him when he entered and spent the time swapping stories and memories.
“The chief has been a special person to me and I hope he knows he can come back if he wants,” said Commissioner Karla Rettstatt.
City holds ceremony for park re-openings
Residents and officials gathered Nov. 30 for the reopening of two parks, Wall Park and Doyle Park.
Included in the artwork at Doyle Park is a large flower, called the Weiss family flower.
It was erected to honor of the four members of the Weiss family of Belleair who perished in a small plane crash in Costa Rico late last year.
Both town and BCF officials have indicated they will work together in the future as more of the community’s parks are upgraded. Next up is likely the Tackett Memorial Park next to the town hall, while the next major park redevelopment is likely going to be Hallett Park along the bluff.
Officials seek input for town’s future
Roughly 100 residents gathered at the Dimmitt Community Center on Nov. 28 for the first of several public gatherings aimed at developing a direction for the community for years to come.
The idea of having both a short- and long-term plan was raised by Commissioner Tom Kurey several months ago. He wanted a clearer outline of individual projects on the short-term and goals for the future so what is being done today will fit the needs of tomorrow.
Commissioners agreed and Town Manager J.P. Murphy engaged the Florida Institute of Government to conduct the workshops and public meetings to come up with the plan. The institute is a collaboration between USF and UCF.
In his opening remarks Murphy told the residents that this was all about the future.
“We would like to paint a picture of what we might look like in the years ahead,” he said. “This is about you and your thoughts; it is about your children and your grandchildren and what you would like for them in the future.
“We want a roadmap for the future.”
Indian Rocks Beach
Cookie Kennedy takes office
Cookie Kennedy was elected mayor of Indian Rocks Beach in March.
Long-time Mayor R.B. Johnson had indicated that he wasn’t going to run again. Kennedy defeated resident Don House for the position.
Nick Palomba and returning Commissioner Ed Hoofnagle were also elected. Candidate Jude Bond was defeated. The opening on the commission was created when Kennedy gave up her seat to run for mayor.
Dozens of people showed up at city hall March 27 to say goodbye to Johnson, who had been their mayor for the past 10 years. Later in the meeting they and other commissioners congratulated Kennedy for being the first female mayor in Indian Rocks Beach.
Task force recommends increase in assessments
The special task force formed to find a way to fund the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District has come up with a figure designed to keep the district operating without having to cut service or lay off any employees.
At its Aug. 16 meeting, task force members decided that a $100 increase in annual assessments be imposed on homeowners and businesses within the district. That resolution will now have to be approved by the fire district Board of Commissioners and then, if approved, go to a referendum in the March 2019 election.
Much of the discussion at the meeting centered on how many hotel/motel rooms were in the district and how increases would be handled.
It was decided that motels, which currently pay $165 a year per room, will pay the additional $100 or $265 a year per room.
Residences, including apartments, condos and time shares, will see their annual assessment go from $260 to $360.
Businesses that currently pay a base rate of $286 annually will have to pay $386. Any charges currently outside the base rate will not be affected.
As in previous meetings PSFRD Chief Mike Burton said the important topic now is to get the wording on the referendum clear and simple.
“The challenge is to get the language that is not confusing to voters,” he said. “You want very, very clear ballot language.”
Commission OKs ordinance on short-term rentals
After a meeting that lasted four hours before a full house, IRB commissioners Aug. 11 unanimously passed first reading of an ordinance to control short-term rentals in the community.
Numerous residents spoke on the issue. They came from both sides of the debate.
City Attorney Randy Mora was instrumental in drafting the ordinance, which he said came after long and extensive consultation with representatives from the community and other governments facing the same issues over short-term rentals.
“This is not the first time we’ve dealt with this,” he said. “This comes after two years and many meetings.”
Residents have been complaining that organizations such as Airbnb have turned residential neighborhoods into pockets of small businesses with renters coming in and out at all hours and having late night parties when they are trying to sleep.
Local politicians say they are powerless to stop it because of Florida law. However, they are able to pass ordinances that make it more difficult for short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods to operate.
The IRB ordinance includes measures such as fines for failing to acquire a business license and for breaking other local rules and regulations pertaining to trash, noise and parking.
Utility undergrounding project moves forward
Utility undergrounding in the Bellevue Estates neighborhood will go forward, despite a significant increase in resident assessments.
The City Council voted unanimously at its Sept. 5 meeting in favor of approving the higher assessments and related conditions, giving their go-ahead for the project to continue.
The increases are substantial. Council members learned at last month’s council meeting that new undergrounding cost numbers are nearly 50 percent higher than what was estimated earlier this year. At that time, the affected residents were told the undergrounding could cost a little over $11,000 per household. That number has now jumped to over $16,000.
The cost increase now totals over $600,000, and the overall project cost is nearly $2 million.
Despite the increase in cost, Councilman Glenn Gunn, who lives in the Bellevue Estates neighborhood and was elected on a pledge to get the undergrounding done, said at last month’s meeting he was confident the involved residents wanted the project to be completed. “Get it done,” Glenn had said.
Parking charge at City Hall lot
Nonresidents now pay a parking fee to use the lot next to City Hall. Council decided in May to install a pay station and begin charging an hourly fee to anyone not using the lot for city business or Community Center events. Belleair Beach residents can park free with a sticker available at City Hall.
The City Hall/Community Center lot had been the only lot in the city with free parking. Pay stations are currently installed at Morgan Park, Bayside Park and the Marina.
The parking rate at all city owned lots is $3 an hour during the week, and $4 an hour on weekends and holidays. Daily parking is also available at $15 a day during the week, $20 a day for weekends and holidays.
New council member takes office
A new council member was chosen to fill a critical vacancy at the Oct. 1 meeting.
He is Michael “Todd” Harper, a graduate of Seminole High School, who said he has a longtime familiarity with the community. He has lived in Belleair Beach for almost three years, has worked in system design and as a business development manager.
The council member selection was needed to replace Nicholas Pavouris, who resigned in August, giving no reason for his leaving. He was one of four council members elected in March on a platform of change and “reshaping of city government.” The others were Marvin Behm, Glenn Gunn and Jody Shirley
Belleair Beach has a seven-member city council, who serve three-year terms.
Belleair Beach selects new city manager
The City Council chose Community Services Director Lynn Rives to be city manager March 5, ending a process that included telephone interviews, question-and-answer sessions and evaluations by a selection committee.
Rives, a former Belleair Beach mayor, has also been acting city manager for the past seven months. The vote to hire Rives was one short of unanimous. Council Member Pamela Gunn supported Terry Henley, the acting budget director for the city of North Miami for the job.
Upscale townhouses may yet become a part of the city’s housing mix
The City Commission decided at its Oct. 8 workshop that a developer who has been buying up aging duplexes and triplexes in the city, wanting to convert them to upscale townhouses, may be able to proceed with his plans.
Some tweaks to the city code will be needed, as both the townhouses and the duplexes they will replace are non-conforming properties, meaning they do not meet current code requirements.
But that will be allowable with some “simple fixes” to the code, planner Luis Serna told the commission.
“This is something we can fix easily in the ordinance,” Serna said.
The willingness to make code changes that would allow townhouses was a turnaround from last month.
Then, the townhouse project had appeared doomed when it was pointed out none of the duplexes that would be replaced with townhouses met the minimum lot size requirement, which is 12,000 square feet for a two-family dwelling and 18,000 square feet for a three-family unit. It would be necessary to assemble more adjoining property to meet the minimum lot size requirement.
Developer Ric Feinberg said acquiring extra lots to build the town homes would be “economically unfeasible.”
The city had previously hired planner Serna to recommend code changes that would permit the building of two separate dwelling units and owners on a property, rather than one, which would be needed for the townhouses. That could be done with setback and lot width changes, and changes to the residential urban and residential medium zoning districts, where the duplexes that would be replaced with townhouses existed.
City administrator sworn in
The swearing in of Debra Sullivan as city administrator at the May 21 commission meeting marks the official beginning of a new level of city government.
The change creates a position “where Debra is the head administrative person of our city, not just a city clerk,” said Mayor Chris Arbutine in a comment after the meeting. “We want to recognize her for what she does.”
Sullivan has actually been serving in an administrator capacity while her title has remained city clerk.
Arbutine also said Belleair Bluffs has a government where the commission, led by the mayor, plays a leadership role.
“We tell the city staff, led by the city administrator, what we want to accomplish and to implement our goals in the best way possible,” Arbutine said. “We don’t hire the staff to tell us what to do, we tell them to get things done.”
At the meeting, the commission approved the city administrator employment agreement and Sullivan’s appointment. Administrative Assistant Alexis Silcox was appointed city clerk, replacing Sullivan in that role.
Commission at odds with turtle relocation
Some town commissioners are taking issue with the relocation of turtle nests on residents’ beachfront property.
This year’s beach renourishment of the northern beach strip began in mid-June, at the height of the turtle nesting season. To protect the eggs, Clearwater Marine Aquarium officials decided to move endangered nests to Belleair Shore, which does not participate in beach renourishment. That is due to the town’s claim that the residents own the beach in front of their property.
The beach there appeared to be an ideal safe haven. The turtle nests would not be disturbed by the renourishment activity, which goes on 24 hours a day and could definitely impact the nighttime hatching of baby turtles attempting to reach the water.
But the nests’ relocation to property above the tide line, which Belleair Shore residents claim as their own, violates property rights, said Commissioner Steve Blume at the July 24 town commission meeting.
Commissioner Deborah Roseman said she was astounded to find six turtle nests behind her home.
“For the life of me, I can’t see how they should be able to relocate six nests onto (my) private property,” Roseman said.
“Who gave them permission to come onto our property to relocate the turtles?” asked Blume.
“Nobody that I’m aware of,” said Mayor Robert Schmidt.
Town commission rejects request to build tennis court
A resident’s request to build a 43-by-81-foot tennis court in his front yard has been turned down by the town commission.
The surface could also be used for basketball and hockey.
The unanimous disapproval came at the Aug. 21 commission meeting, with three board members present. The commissioners had delayed action on the court, which was first proposed in June, until the neighbors could be notified of the request and given a chance to respond.
Residents on both sides of the property, at 1300 Gulf Blvd., came to the commission meeting and voiced their opinion of the proposed tennis court.
They don’t want it.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to do it in our neighborhood,” said Paul Haagsma, who lives next door to the north. “It feels more like a complex that’s more commercial than residential.”