A law firm representing developer Oliver T. Carr has told the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics it wants to verify the signatures on petitions calling for a referendum on preserving the historic Rhodes Tavern, rather than relying on the board's own checking process.
Carr's construction firm won the legal right almost two years ago to tear down the structure, built in 1801, at 15th and F streets NW. Negotiations with a group of preservationists to move the building have failed.
The tavern is the oldest remaining commercial building in Washington and in 1814 was used by British military commanders who dined there while the nearby White House burned.
It also served as the District's first city hall, among other public and political roles during the city's early years.
The petition "is not something that is constructive," said Norman M. Glasgow, a lawyer with the firm of Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, which represents Carr.
Glasgow said the nonbinding initiative is "just another delay" by groups that want the tavern preserved on its site. Supporters of the petition drive say they turned in about 25,000 signatures.
"We have employed our own statistician to check the petitions submitted against the official voter registration printout," Glasgow said in a letter to the board.
Glasgow said in a telephone interview that the review was just an effort "to be thorough. I don't presume that the petitions are valid or invalid."
One elections official said the request indicates "there's going to be a big battle" over the initiative drive, the latest step in a long effort by some preservationists to block demolition of the tavern.
Carr, who is planning the second phase of his Metropolitan Square development at the site, has not announced final plans for the building.
A preservation group headed by Joseph Grano has continued a five-year fight to save the building.
In addition to the initiative, the group has lobbied for a congresssional resolution to preserve the building.
The elections board is scheduled to meet Wednesday to certify that Grano's group, the Save Historic Rhodes Tavern Initiative Committee, has turned in a minimum number of signatures so that the board can go ahead with its sampling process to verify that the signatures are of registered voters.
William Lewis, general counsel and acting executive director of the elections board, said that regardless of the law firm's findings, the board will rely on its own ramdom sampling.
Grano said Thursday that he believes his group has obtained enough valid signatures.
"Carr obviously has enough money to try to defeat the people's will," Grano said. "I hope he's not successful. We did what we were supposed to do."