Future of Orange Park hotel to be decided by judge

Town voted to shut down Rodeway Inn last year

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – A Clay County judge heard closing arguments Wednesday in a case over an Orange Park hotel, which was declared a nuisance by the town. 

Last December, the town of Orange Park's Nuisance and Abatement Board voted to close the Rodeway Inn, located on U.S. 17 just south of Interstate 295, because of ongoing crime issues. The board determined the hotel had not done enough to fix the crime problem after both sides previously agreed on a plan to improve the hotel. 

The next step was for the circuit court to sign off on an order to close the Rodeway Inn, which has since changed its name to the Parkway Inn, since the town does not have legal authority to shut it down without approval from a judge. 

At Wednesday's hearing, Judge Michael Sharritt listened to closing arguments from attorneys for the town and the hotel, and will then review the case. According to the Clay County Clerk of Circuit Court, the judge is expected to release a written decision by next week. 

Sharritt said he will try to balance the hotel's right to run their own property with the town's right to control crime.

Town leaders had been working with the hotel for over a year to clean up drug and prostitution problems. However, a Town Council board voted the hotel hadn’t done a good enough job and asked for a court order to shut the establishment down.

"That facility is absolutely infested with, I have no better way to put it, almost like a disease of drugs and drug-related offenses that have taken root there. And our board has tried to do everything to try and root it out," said Sam Garrison, the town's attorney, at Wednesday's hearing. 

The town’s Nuisance Abatement Board asked the Rodeway Inn to make a lot of changes in September, from 24-7 security to no longer accepting cash.

At Wednesday's hearing, Daniel Copeland, the hotel's attorney, pointed to confusing crime numbers at the hotel's address. He said there were 376 calls to police about the hotel's address from June 2014 to January 2015, but he pointed out that only 13 calls were related to drugs, and one for prostitution. The rest were for more minor incidents like traffic stops, Copeland said. 

Another criminal complaint brought up at the hearing was a meth lab that was found in a hotel room in February. Copeland responded, citing the TV show "Breaking Bad," which was about making meth.

"We're not talking Walter White, 'Breaking Bad' and his million-dollar meth lab in the bottom of the dry cleaners that everyone associates meth labs with. This meth lab, your honor, consisted of a plastic soda bottle," Copeland said. 

While both town leaders and the Rodeway Inn management said crime has declined and there have been some improvements, the town’s board decided last year that it hadn’t improved enough.

The Rodeway Inn has been a hot spot for crime in Orange Park for years. Things got so bad in September 2015 that the hotel agreed to a plan to stop crime in the hotel by doing things like implementing security, and getting identification for all guests so that information would be readily available to law enforcement officers.

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