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Owners of St. Pete's Doc Webb House allege a conspiracy to block the sale to developers

ST. PETERSBURG — The owners of a house once lived in by Doc Webb, founder of the "World's Most Unusual Drug Store,'' are suing neighbors and a preservation organization for interfering with efforts to sell the property.

In a suit filed this month in Pinellas County Circuit Court, Karen and Merrill King say they are victims of a conspiracy. They say Anne Dowling, husband Derek Hess and the group Preserve the 'Burg are seeking to have the house declared a historic landmark even though Dowling and Hess knew it was under contract to a developer. The purpose of the alleged conspiracy, the suit says, was to force the Kings to sell their house to Dowling and Hess for less than market value.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Could 'Doc' Webb's St. Pete house go the way of his mermaids, dancing chickens and World's Most Unusual Drug Store?

In the suit, the Kings say they contracted in October to sell the nearly century-old house for $960,000 to David Weekley Homes, which planned to raze it and build three new ones. "Because they are neighbors, Dowling and Hess observed the survey and staking activities at the property and … were otherwise aware of the Weekley contract,'' the suit says.

Dowling then filed an application with the city for local landmark designation, falsely indicating that there was no contract on the house and signing her name as "property owner.'' (On another part of the application, she wrote that the Kings were the owners.)

Also listed as a defendant is lawyer Peter Belmont, a vice president of Preserve the 'Burg. He allegedly helped with the application and spoke to the Kings and city officials in "vague terms regarding a potential buyer'' that wanted to preserve the Allendale Terrace house that James "Doc'' Webb lived in for many years. On Feb. 21, with the assistance of Belmont and Preserve the 'Burg, Dowling and Hess offered the Kings $750,000 for the property, $210,000 less than Weekley's contract amount.

"Indeed, Dowling and Hess had filed the application … not to preserve the property but because they intended to purchase the property!'' the suit says.

As a result of the pending application, the city has suspended the issuance of a demolition permit and Weekley has "rightfully refused'' to proceed with the scheduled April 26 closing on the house, the suit says. The Kings are seeking in excess of $15,000 in damages and various costs and fees.

Belmont did not return an email seeking comment. Dowling and Hess refrained from comment although Dowling previously has said her $750,000 offer was just a starting point and that she wanted to save the house.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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