Belleair residents plead with officials: don't demolish historic Belleview Biltmore hotel

01/18/12 Janelle Irwin
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Owners of historic Belleview Biltmore hotel are moving ahead with plans to have it demolished. About 200 emotional residents went to a town hall meeting last night to tell town officials to save the iconic resort and golf club.

The Belleview Biltmore is in the town of Belleair between Largo and Clearwater. It’s more than 100 years old and at one point was the largest occupied wooden structure in the world. Now it sits in disrepair awaiting an unknown fate. Residents opposed to demolishing the structure have managed to stave off the wrecking ball so far. One resident involved in the fight to save the hotel, LaVonne Johnson, teared up as she read from a book depicting the Biltmore as a historic relic.

“You’ve got something so precious, and you’ve heard all that. Your ears have heard all this, but your heart hasn’t. We bought here because of the Biltmore Hotel. And in here, if you’ll look, they can fish, you’ve got a marina. If you would go through this, there’s more things to this property. I’m sorry I’m not a speaker, but please, I hope somebody can touch your heart.”

The owners of the Belleview Biltmore have been trying to get permission to tear it down for more than a year. Matt Cummings is the representative for that company, BB Hotel. He said renovation costs could soar to more than 120 million dollars which represents a pretty steep price tag considering a company can purchase a beach front hotel for only 20 million.

“So, you’ve got a hotel here that no longer has its golf course, that no longer has its views of the water because the concrete condominiums have been built all around it. So, we’ve lost all of that. If you want, you can walk through the hotel with me and I can show you the condition of it. It’s not feasible to save it.”

But many residents blame the need for pricey renovations on the current owners. St. Petersburg resident Linda Zamparelli thinks they should take responsibility for the structure’s dilapidation.

“They’re letting it really fall apart and, basically, killing it by disrepair. So, I think they should follow the codes. I think that it should have been kept up. It shouldn’t have been allowed to get to this state. They have a lot of responsibility here as owners. If you let your house go, the city would have you fix it or they’d lean your house and do the repairs themselves. So, I think the owners of this property should have never allowed it to get to this point.”

Zamparelli and citizens who think like her aren’t far off either. Belleair’s town attorney, David Ottinger, said they have fined the company more than 200 thousand dollars for code violations. He added however, that owners of the Biltmore and its managing staff have made some repairs.

“They’ve done some patch work. They’ve done some diversion of the water to prevent any further deterioration. It’s not perfect, but they’re allowing the town to monitor it so it doesn’t get any worse. So we’re doing the best that can be done other than the complete renovation of the hotel which isn’t occurring anytime soon, but they are doing some repairs and patching and they’re in there being careful it doesn’t get a whole lot worse than it is now.”

Another resident, Bob Lurie, is the head of Florida Growth Realty. That’s the company that sold the Biltmore in 2010. He admitted he probably wasn’t the most popular guy in the crown, but came with a plan to not only save the hotel, but to make the town some money.

“The city of Belleair can acquire at a very attractive price, the hotel, and hold onto it until we find a man maybe sitting in Dubai, maybe tonight in Holland, maybe he’s in Hong Kong, but there may be such a person who could come in and be the developer and buy it back from the city and the city could make a very attractive profit.”

Lurie may not have been the town hero, but he definitely wasn’t the least favorite in the standing room only auditorium of Biltmore supporters. That honor would probably go to Joe Paige. Paige is a private property rights advocate who said residents shouldn’t expect either government or a private enterprise to save a failing business.

“Instead of gathering petition signatures to thwart the will of the developer, gather dollars. Get enough dollars together so that the city or these special interest groups can buy this building, restore it to its grandeur and try to make a going concern about it. I have no problem as long as it’s a going economic concern, but forcing the private property owner, in this case a developer, to risk his capital with an uncertain outcome, in fact making it more difficult, I believe is wrong.”

No decision was made last night as to the future of Belleair’s crumbling piece of history. Even if the town decides to go forward with demolition, a mound of zoning paperwork stands in the way of developers’ plans. Matt Cummings of BB Hotel said the group would like to build townhomes, but that would require approval by residents and ultimately the town commission.

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