Planner who guided Belleview Biltmore debate retires from board

From left, Belleair Town Commissioners Tom Kurey and Tom Shelly; former Planning and Zoning Board Chairwoman BonSue Brandvik; Deputy Mayor Karla Rettstatt, and Town Commissioner Michael Wilkinson display a proclamation at town hall. The commission thanked Brandvik for overseeing some tough decisions on the planning board.

BELLEAIR — BonSue Brandvik, the Belleair Planning and Zoning Board chairwoman who oversaw the debate over the historic Belleview Biltmore Hotel, has retired after 14 years on the board.

The magnificent wooden hotel, luxurious with its balconies, grand rooms and exquisite woodwork, was opened in Jan. 15, 1897. Henry B. Plant built the resort as a destination to boost tourist travel on his Gulf Coast railroad. A string of wealthy developers tried, but failed, in recent decades to renovate and reopen the 455-room beauty. The grand hotel is the emotional center of this gulf shore town.

In the end, the town agreed to let JMC Communities of St. Petersburg renovate 33 rooms and recreate the lobby, main ballroom and other parts of the original structure. It is now considered a showplace of Florida’s golden era. The rest of the land was cleared for multifamily homes.

“I was the chairman of the planning board the whole time they were deciding whether to allow the property to be taken over by a developer,” Brandvik told Tampa Bay Newspapers. “The board heard from the community and debated whether it would no longer be a hotel, debated all the rezoning of the hotel property and dividing it up — it was a huge thing.”

The town council honored her work with a proclamation at its Feb. 2 regular meeting.

Belleair Town Manager JP Murphy applauded Brandvik’s ability to ensure all sides got a word in.

“I think she handled it very well, there was no hiding that she was for saving the Biltmore, though,” said Murphy said. “She really managed the meetings in a way that led the process for the ultimate redevelopment to take place in a way that was sensitive for the community.”

Brandvik literally expressed her desire to save the hotel — in the romance novels she wrote while on the planning board. In her author profile for her series of books, “Spirits of the Belleview Biltmore,” she wrote: “I was inspired to write paranormal romance novels about hotel guests who interact with spirits residing there. Along with preservationists and worldwide fans of the hotel, I want to save the Belleview Biltmore from demolition by finding an investor or group of investors to purchase and renovate the resort.”

In the end, JC Communities saved the hotel’s spirit; Brandvik said the planning board sought all opinions.

“As a member of the board, I am very proud that we listened to all the discussions and that the people of Belleair got their say,” she said. “It’s one of those things — I’m presiding over the meetings, but it is the town commission that decides these things. If I get to make the rules, it would still be there, but that’s not what the job was.”

Brandvik also suggested residents seek neighborhood support before requesting variances before the Planning Board.

“If someone wanted to add a garage and it was going to be on the side setback, they would ask for a waiver,” she said. “We would ask, ‘Did you bring a letter from neighbors supporting your request for a variance?’ If they didn’t do that, we denied the variance and told them, ‘If you want to go on to the commission, you get those letters and resolve the issues that we had as to why we couldn’t recommend the variance.”

Spectrum contract approved

The town commission has agreed to a contract with Spectrum Communications for enhanced phone and Internet service. The contract will allow the city to have backup lines for its voice, video and data feeds during hurricanes and other outages, Stefan Massol, director of Support Services, told the commissioners.

The $17,715 annual contract over five years will solve an aging communications platform that has suffered service failure from time to time, Karla Rettstatt said.

“I am happy to see us have redundant service,” Rettsatt said. “If we get into a hurricane situation, we need to have a plan of action in that event. This is a really good call.”