Lawyers for the Oliver T. Carr Co. told a U.S. District Court judge yesterday that the company stands to lose more than $1 million if the planned demolition of Rhodes Tavern is delayed by a referendum to save the building that has been placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Carr attorney Louis P. Robbins told Judge Thomas A. Flannery, who has been asked by a citizens' group to bar the city from issuing a demolition permit pending the vote, that he should not intervene in the bitter, six-year controversy over the tavern.
Judicial intervention now, Robbins said, would be "unfair, unreasonable, unjust and unconstitutional." He said the company would lose $16,000 a day if the project were delayed for 11 weeks.
William Dobrovir, an attorney for the Save Rhodes Tavern Initiative Committee, said Flannery should "preserve the right of the electorate to vote on the issue."
"This is a voting-rights case," Dobrovir said. "No one is harmed by the vote" itself, he argued, asking Flannery to "preserve the status quo" until the vote could be taken.
Final plans for the demolition project, which is part of the major Metropolitan Square commercial development project between 14th, 15th, F and G streets NW, were approved last May by the city's Board of Zoning Adjustment, the last step needed before a demolition permit can be issued. The board's approval was to go into effect Aug. 12.
The initiative, if successful, would not necessarily save the 180-year-old tavern, but would "make it public policy to support the preservation of Washington's first town hall," and would establish an advisory board to explore ways of keeping it intact.
Lawyers for the city argued yesterday that the initiative was improperly on the ballot since initiatives cannot be used to overturn purely administrative decisions.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Jonathan Farmer told Flannery that the issue "does not rise to the level of a voting-rights case," and said the citizens group was trying to use the referendum to have "one more bite at the apple"--one more chance to try to save the structure.
Robbins, arguing along the same lines, said the battle over the fate of the tavern had been going on since 1977.
"This has been negotiated, this has been heard by the city's zoning board and several other agencies and the local appeals court and now they want to do it again." Robbins said the delay would cause Carr "$1 million worth of harm."
Dobrovir said the city does not have the right to challenge the appropriateness of the initiative, since the city's Board of Elections and Ethics has approved the placing the matter on the ballot.
Flannery focused his questions at the hour-long hearing on whether the referendum was administrative or legislative in nature and whether he was not obliged to defer to the determination of the elections board to allow the initiative, signed by some 23,000 voters, to go on the ballot.
Robbins argued that the elections board decision was not binding and that the initiative was "invidious, single-purpose legislation directed against one single property owner." He argued that the initiative could have been proposed earlier, but now "we are two-thirds of the way through" building the project.
Flannery, who called the dispute a "close question," did not indicate when he would rule on the issue.