Sunday, February 18, 2018
News Roundup

Fenway Hotel owner faces fine of $250 a day for code violations

DUNEDIN — The owner of the old Fenway Hotel will be fined $250 each day that code violations aren't resolved.

City officials say the violations are a direct threat to public safety.

The seven citizen volunteers on Dunedin's Code Enforcement Board handed down the decision Tuesday afternoon.

The fines are retroactive to June 2, the deadline the board gave hotel owner George Rahdert and his firm, 1 AVS LLC, to correct the most egregious of the violations cited in a 23-page notice issued in January.

The infractions include open and poorly secured doors and windows, shards of broken glass, and nails sticking out of fallen boards — items the city fears could lead to injuries of children and vagrants who, police reports show, constantly trespass on the property to play and sleep.

While fines are meant to prod owners to quickly fix code violations, Dunedin planning director Greg Rice and other city officials concede that the "chance of seeing anything (in this case) is slim to none."

That's because Rahdert already owes at least $10.8 million in loans, interest and other fees to PNC Bank, which is foreclosing on the waterfront landmark.

"The city would not be able to enforce its lien unless that mortgage foreclosure case went away," said City Attorney Tom Trask. "And we could be more than second in line. We could be way down the line."

City officials say a cleanup of graffiti, trash and signs of neglect — not collecting fines — is their ultimate goal for the property, which is blighting the neighborhood.

When Rahdert purchased the 6.4-acre property at 453 Edgewater Drive for $8 million in 2006, he had envisioned restoring the 1920s structure to its heyday. But the project was derailed partly by the poor economy. RBC Bank filed a foreclosure lawsuit against Rahdert in 2010.

PNC postponed an April foreclosure action while it completed a corporate merger with RBC Bank. PNC told a judge last month that it hadn't been able to reset the auction date because Rahdert ignored the bank's requests to inspect and appraise the property to make sound bidding decisions.

The bank couldn't legally access the property because Rahdert still owns the hotel. He says he has not been uncooperative.

Rahdert is a St. Petersburg lawyer whose firm represents the Tampa Bay Times on First Amendment and business issues.

PNC said in court papers that the Fenway poses a "public safety hazard" and that its condition is diminishing its value. Documents show that police, firefighters and the city have responded to neighbors' constant complaints about vandalism, trespassing, squatters, vermin, suspicious vehicles and code violations. City officials say water damage has begun to take a toll on the roof, walls and top floor.

At the bank's urging, the court appointed Franklin Street Management Services, a Tampa commercial real estate and property management firm, to oversee upkeep and prevent further deterioration.

That recent development provides a ray of hope for city leaders.

Dunedin code inspector Michael Kepto told the code enforcement board that the receiver expects to mow and trim the landscaping by Friday. The firm also plans to replace broken windows on the front of the hotel and board up windows not visible from the front with white or neutral-colored wood.

PNC is advancing the cost of the repairs. Trask said banks typically either ask the court to add those costs to their judgment against the defendant or attempt to recoup their money through the ultimate sale of the property.

"We don't really care who brings (the property) into compliance," Trask said. "Once it's brought into compliance, the fines would stop."

Reached by phone Wednesday, Rahdert, who did not attend the code enforcement meeting, said cleanup is now the bank's responsibility. He said he spent tens of thousands of dollars on mowing, securing the property and other maintenance before the bank set the auction date.

Next month the code enforcement board plans to get a progress report on the violations. Rahdert's firm could face an additional fine of $150 a day if those items aren't resolved.

If the infractions aren't fixed by the time a buyer comes along, city officials say they will have to decide whether to file a new code enforcement case against the new owner.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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