GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The former owners of an Orange Park night club and the Clay County Board of County Commissioners are preparing to head to court five years after restrictive ordinances were passed that effectively shut them down for business.
The owners of Club Christopher’s want to move forward with the suit, while the BCC’s hired attorneys have filed papers asking the court to rule without a hearing. However, a hearing is scheduled for Aug. 8.
For several years, Wells Road in Orange Park was home to vibrant clubs and nightlife. That all changed several years ago when a county ordinance effectively banned clubs form operating on the strip.
The 2011 ordinance prohibited the sale of alcohol in facilities larger than 4,750 square feet after 11 p.m. on Wells Road. The ordinance had an immediate impact on Club Christopher’s, Club Chameleon and Crazy Horse Saloon.
That ordinance alone, was enough to slow down business at each club on Wells Road, but the final nail in the club’s coffin came from the second ordinance, that dealt with zoning. It prohibited the construction and operation of nightclubs on a 1.9-mile stretch of Wells Road, known as the “Wells Road Corridor.”
Various clubs on Wells Road were effected, such as the Crazy Horse, but the establishment at the center of the controversy since the beginning has been Club Christopher’s of Orange Park.
For years Club Christopher’s had been a favored hangout for many young adults in Clay County and Duval County’s Westside, but the County suggests that the club was nothing more than incubator for crime.
“Crime and illicit activity in the area of the Wells Road Corridor has been increasing over the past several years, requiring the deployment of a greatly disproportionate amount the [sheriff’s] Office’s man power and resources to combat at tremendous public expense,” states a request for summary judgment filed on behalf of the BCC.
The ordinance was developed as a response to citizen complaints and rising crime on Wells Road.
Violence at Club Christopher’s became a normality. Between 2005 and 2010 there were several shootings along the Wells Road corridor. The Clay County Sherriff’s Office also reported an influx of crimes such as DUI arrests, traffic citations, robberies and assaults between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
In 2011, a 32-year-old man was shot twice outside of the club following a scuffle in the parking lot. He survived and the suspects were charged with attempted murder and possession of a controlled substance.
Incidents like that are the reason that Clay County approved the ordinances.
Club Christopher’s, among others, closed on Wells Road in 2011, much to the dismay of club owners Christopher White and Phredco Inc. Feeling particularly wronged by Clay County, White decided to file a suit against the county in Federal Court in May 2011.
White’s suit was ultimately unsuccessful. He alleged that the 14th amendment of procedural due process, substantive due process and equal protection were violated when Clay County issued the ordinances.
In that case, Clay County filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party summarily, or without a full trial. Such a judgment may be issued on the merits of an entire case, or on discrete issues in that case.
A U.S. District Court granted the county’s motion for summary judgment and determined that the ordinances did not violate any laws. The federal court also ruled that Clay County clearly described a “conceivably rational basis’’ between the ordinances and a legitimate government interest.
In addition to that, the ordinance was not enforced during the federal proceeding.
White’s next move is playing out now, by taking the Clay County Government to county court where he is suing for a total of $996,000 in damages.
“The facts of this cause of action would show that at the time my client acquired the property, the zoning classification and requirements for the use of the property designated it as a commercial location which included uses as a nightclub and the sale of alcoholic beverages,” White’s attorney Christopher W. Wickersham Jr. said in a statement to county government officials. “My client spent money in remodeling the structure and acquiring a 4COP license to operate a night club, which was permitted use, at this location.”
The property went into foreclosure in November 2013 “The Clay County Quota License owned by my client was valued between $75,000 and $80,000 prior to May of 2011,” Wickersham states in court documents. “The value of the license after the adoption and notice of enforcement of the ordinance decreased approximately 50%, which resulted in a $40,000 loss to my client.”
White’s suit against the county claims the ordinance essentially caused him to lose a large sum of the money he put into Club Christopher’s, a fact that Clay County has vehemently denied since 2011. It is also why Clay County is asking the court to approve its Motion for Summary Judgment hoping for a swift end to this case, just as with the federal case.
According to the county’s motion, White had not made a payment on the property since November 2011, three months prior to when the ordinances were enforced. Attorneys for the county also claim the ordinances should not have impacted White’s club as harshly as he claimed.
One of Clay County’s contends that the establishment could have succeeded and that White did not try hard enough to save his business. They cited the success of a golf store that currently occupies the former Club Christopher’s facility as a way of citing how the location had commercial viability.
Attorneys for White and the BCC did not return phone calls by deadline.