Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014
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Vote another blow to preservation of Biltmore hotel

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BELLEAIR — Town commissioners Tuesday approved a reduction in the minimum amount of land on which a hotel could exist, a move that could chip away at the total acreage of the Belleview Biltmore.

The 4-1 vote, which relates marginally to the fate of the shuttered hotel, will make it easier for the adjacent country club to buy a 2.3-acre swath of land that club officials say will provide crucial parking space. Although the decision isn’t a death warrant for the sprawling historic property, critics are calling the move a sly way of subdividing the property before doing it in completely.

Commissioners who voted for the change said their decision was based primarily on property rights. If owners Ralph and Daniel Ades of Kawa Capital Management want to sell off a portion of their land to a willing buyer - in this case the Belleair Country Club - the town can’t hinder them, said Commissioner Kevin Piccareto.

“How can the government go to a private individual and say, ‘This is what you need to do?’” he said. “It’s their choice. There’s a willing buyer. There’s a willing seller.”

The sole dissenting vote was that of Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler, who cited singer Joni Mitchell in his reasoning.

“We’re paving over paradise and putting in a parking lot,” he said. “I just can’t .... vote to put a parking lot on the highest and best use property in the town of Belleair. Or Pinellas County.”

The vote wasn’t good news for Richard Heisenbottle and Gary Rosenberg of Belleview Biltmore Partners, a group that has for years been seeking funding - which they say they now have - to purchase and restore the old hotel. The project’s price tag could exceed $200 million.

The pair announced Monday they have secured an investor and have documentation to prove the money is on hand but wouldn’t disclose where the cash is coming from.

“I think the impetus is that even though it’s a small piece of property, it’s part of a much bigger picture,” Rosenberg said. “We have plans, if in fact we are able to buy the hotel, we have plans that include that side, as it was once used as part of the hotel.”

The hotel property is under contract to be purchased by St. Petersburg developer Michael Cheezem, said Ed Armstrong, the attorney for Ralph and Daniel Ades. Armstrong didn’t appear convinced Belleview Biltmore Partners have the cash on hand. The group has heralded multiple funding sources in the past, only to have them fall through. In October of last year, they missed a crucial deadline for a down payment, saying the investor at the time pulled out at the last minute.

If the funding is indeed available, they now have to convince developer Mike Cheezem, who holds the contract to buy the property, that restoring the hotel is the right route. Cheezem, head of St. Petersburg Firm JMC Communities, has said he wants to demolish much of the hotel to make way for a new development but that he intends to preserve part of it.

“We still have to meet with the gentleman who has the hotel under contract,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a business decision, a business discussion from here. We have to sit down with him.”

He said Cheezem has yet to return their calls.

The hotel has been at the center of a long debate in the small coastal town, with a majority of town commissioners saying they’d like to see it demolished to make way for a more profitable development. Some of them were once supporters of restoration of the hotel, which closed in 2009, but have in recent years eschewed that stance out of concern for the town’s budget, which could benefit from a boost in tax revenue a new development could bring.

Preservation advocates say the hotel’s legacy is too important for it to be demolished and that it can be restored.

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