Friendly Fire

Early on a Sunday morning last month, an abandoned historic house that for decades has blocked development plans on valuable land in downtown Fort Lauderdale burst into flames. Whether it was arson, as investigators initially suggested, or just a stunningly convenient accident, the fire at the Clarke House at 700 SW Second Ct. in Sailboat Bend stands to be a huge moneymaker for the owner.

"I wish it would've happened ten years earlier," John Francavilla, the current owner of the property, admits candidly. "I really thought the hurricanes would blow the damned thing down."

Francavilla, known to his neighbors as "Dr. Razzle Dazzle" for his ingenuity in handling city building officials, has been trying to redevelop the property for years. He says he's been so frustrated over the years that he was often tempted to illegally bulldoze the place. "But I didn't want to do anything improper. Doing the right thing sometimes sucks."

What Francavilla calls "the right thing," preservationists call demolition by neglect. It's a tactic often used to dispose of annoying historic structures, allowing them to fall into such disrepair that they must be torn down. Doing this with the Clarke House did little but antagonize the neighbors, as the place proved uncannily impervious to ruin while providing a perfect target for vagrant squatters.

"We watch the vagrants go in and out of there," says Nolan Haan, who lives up the street from the Clarke House. "The front door was always wide open on its hinges." The building's continuing dilapidation has cost Francavilla and previous owners substantial daily neglect fees since the late 1980s.

Making matters more difficult for the would-be developer was the fact that the Clarke House was located inside Sailboat Bend, Broward County's only historic district. Its location meant that, despite the holes in its walls and its decaying ceiling, the city was doubly reluctant to allow its owners to demolish the "historic" structure. Since 1995, applications for demolition permits have been denied three separate times by the Historic Preservation Board on the grounds that the building was restorable.

"The whole neighborhood is historic, individual house by house," says Haan, who is also a member of the Historic Preservation Board. "Clarke House was definitely able to be rehabilitated."

Not anymore. The fire on April 30 finally destroyed enough of the building to make restoration a pipe dream, and last week, the city tore it down.

Which makes Francavilla very happy. He says he's considering a plan to construct seven townhouses on the property, which would sell for about $200,000 each, but has other projects in mind, such as office buildings, for the space. The valuable space, which is near both the New River and the downtown arts district, is "zoned for anything," Francavilla says. "Oh shit, I think it'd be a beautiful office building there."

And the fire keeps on giving. Because the building is gone, the city can no longer fine Francavilla for neglecting the property.

As his building went up in flames, Francavilla was in the midst of a legal battle to free himself from half a million dollars in fines. When Francavilla bought the corporation that owned the Clarke House, the corporation owed almost $1 million to the city for refusing to maintain its properties. In 2002, Francavilla offered the city a deal: He would pay $325,000 in exchange for demolition permits and dropping all the fines. The city commissioners refused and instead ordered Francavilla to restore the building.

Francavilla sued, arguing that he was not responsible for the fines because notification had been sent to the wrong address. In April, after years of litigation, Francavilla finally won the right to challenge the fines, now bargained down to half a million dollars, in court. If Francavilla wins his case, he might avoid them entirely, says Michael L. Feinstein, his lawyer. "I guess [the city] could try to come back around," he says. "I don't believe they're going to be able to do that."

"I don't think he should get away with anything just because the structure burned down," says Cindi Hutchinson, the city commissioner who represents Sailboat Bend. But Harry Stewart, city attorney, admits that the city's claim on the money is not a sure thing. "It would never be set in stone until the money's in our account," he says.

Just after this victory, the Clarke House caught fire. "It would've been good for my client if it had burned to the ground," acknowledged Feinstein, noting that a nonexistent building cannot accrue new liens.

In fact, as soon as the city decided to proceed with an emergency demolition, ceased charging the daily fines. Francavilla is now off the hook for both past and future liens.

There's only one problem with Francavilla's perfect fire: The Fort Lauderdale police initially suspected foul play. "We do believe that it was intentionally set," city spokesperson Ted Lawson told New Times a few days after the fire occurred.

Witnesses observed police questioning two men at the scene of the fire shortly after the blaze began.

Clarence Williams and his wife were driving past just as the fire started. "We saw fire just go 'woof,' like somebody just put some gas there and just started it up," he says. Williams got out of his car and noticed two men standing near the burning building. When police arrived, he turned them over and watched as they were questioned. Then he left to take his wife to work.

Dee Connors, who lives down the block from the Clarke House, also saw the two men. "The building had just caught fire," he says. "It wasn't that big yet, but already a cop car was there with two men on the ground."

Somehow, these suspects have vanished. There is no mention of them in the police report, and the latest from Kathy Collins, spokeswoman for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, is that there are no leads in the case. "No one is under arrest," she says. "They could have detained some men and then released them."

When Williams returned to the scene of the fire after dropping his wife off at work, he was told by police that they didn't know anything about the two men he had reported or the officer he had seen questioning them.

"The sergeant told me that they don't know who the officer was," Williams says. "I told him, 'If he let those two guys go, then he don't need to be on your force.' I know they started that fire."

But Fort Lauderdale police have backpedaled from their initial suspicions entirely. "The detective on the case says that they are not sure it is even an arson," Collins says.

Were the men Williams and Connors saw being interviewed by cops vagrants who had camped out in the building? Arsonists who had just done a job? Or maybe just a heat mirage?

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Julia Reischel