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Belleair can't stop demolition of resort

Assuming the new owner applies to raze the historic hotel, the town's hands are tied. But there is leverage in approving new construction.

Published April 14, 2005

BELLEAIR - If owners of the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa want to demolish the historic hotel, there's nothing Belleair can do to stop them, officials and legal experts say.

"As long as they meet the technical requirements required to be submitted to procure a demolition permit, it's an administrative entitlement and the town does not have discretion to reject it," Town Attorney Joel Tew said.

The possibility of razing the Belleview Biltmore resurfaced this week after a development officer for DeBartolo Development, which planned to demolish the hotel last year, said his company has the property under contract again.

Last week, a Tampa construction contractor, Cross Construction Co., inquired about demolishing an unidentified commercial structure, town officials said.

No one has applied for a demolition permit for the resort as of Tuesday afternoon.

Alan Zimmet, who has served as attorney for several municipalities over the years, said developers usually have the upper hand when it comes to demolishing historic sites.

"Anybody that owns a building has a right to tear it down in most cases," Zimmet said.

Before demolition permits are issued, Belleair's town code requires a 30-day wait after applications are filed so applicants can meet with the town's historic preservation board.

But the seven-member body serves chiefly in an advisory capacity and can only make recommendations to the town manager.

"I don't believe our advisory board has any measures in our current code to prevent anyone from demolishing it," said Town Manager Steve Cottrell.

David Hutcheson, chairman of the historic preservation board, said he has heard rumors for years about the Biltmore changing hands.

"You never know if something is going to come to fruition. Frankly, I don't get too distraught with the news until it's placed before me," Hutcheson said.

G. Michael Harris, a member of the historic preservation board, said it previously has suggested financial penalties for demolishing historic properties or incentives for maintaining them. But he said the commission was resistant to the ideas.

While the town has little power to fight demolition, preservationists aren't taking the news lying down. Rae Claire Johnson, who is spearheading a local effort to save the Biltmore, said the public needs to be proactive now.

"They need to take it seriously. Once it's gone you can't repair the damage," Johnson said.

Previous plans included hundreds of townhomes or condominiums. But, even if the hotel is demolished, the property and hotel golf courses on Indian Rocks Road would require zoning and land use changes before residential structures are built.

The hotel property's zoning designation is hotel and the golf course property's designation is golf course.

Zoning changes, decided on the town level, would be reviewed by the town's Planning and Zoning Board and voted on by the Town Commission, which holds a quasijudicial hearing.

The hotel property's current land use designation is commercial general, and the golf course's designation is recreation open space.

The commercial general classification allows almost any commercial use, including retail centers, office buildings and other hotels or motels.

Tim Johnson, a prominent Clearwater land use lawyer who this month will ask Clearwater officials to raze a par-3 golf course for townhomes, said that unlike zoning issues, political leaders have significant leeway in debating land use changes.

In the Biltmore's case, changing the golf course could be a ticklish maneuver, he said.

"Given the politics, it would be extremely difficult ... although I don't even begin to profess that I know the facts," Johnson said.

Land use changes involve more regulatory review because they're legislative matters that alter the town's comprehensive plan. After changes are reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Board and voted on by the Town Commission, the amendments must also be reviewed by the Pinellas Planning Council, the County Commission and the Florida state Division Department of Community Affairs.

Proposed amendments also need to be submitted to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Transportation.

--Times staff writers Aaron Sharockman and Christopher Ave contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 14, 2005, 01:14:09]

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