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Clearwater City Council to vote today on land swap with Church of Scientology

By Tracey McManus
A rendering of the proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall, a 3,600-seat auditorium that the Church of Scientology is talking about building along Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater. Photo: Freedom Magazine.

CLEARWATER — The City Council will vote today on whether to swap land with the Church of Scientology, the first negotiation to emerge since the church in April lost to the city on buying a crucial downtown property it needed for its campus.

Scientology is under contract to buy the vacant lot adjacent to the Nolen apartment complex east of downtown for $625,000 from a company managed by developer Guy Bonneville with an agreement to then swap the property for three city-owned parcels, according to the contract.

The church would acquire two small properties around the footprint of the proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall at S Fort Harrison Avenue and Court Street, along with nine parking spaces on Watterson Avenue that abut the northwest portion of the parking garage at 28 N Garden Ave.

City Manager Bill Horne said the city needs the lot next to the Nolen to provide parking for the nearly completed complex's retail portion. He said the deal would save taxpayers money because the total appraised value of the three parcels is $425,000, far below the price of what the city would pay if it bought the vacant lot for the Nolen directly through Bonneville.

When the city inquired about buying the lot directly from Bonneville's company in September, Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor said Bonneville conveyed he would sell the lot to the city only for "well above the assessed value," which is $600,000.

Bonneville, who also manages his father-in-law's company that owns the Times Clearwater bureau building at 1130 Cleveland St., declined to comment on the negotiations.

At a city work session Monday, director of engineering Michael Quillen said there are downsides to parting with the three properties. The nine parking spaces on Garden Avenue serve the public and employees of nearby businesses.

The parcel on the northwest corner of S Garden Avenue and Court Street holds seven parking spaces and is full of underground utilities, Quillen said.

The property at 600 Franklin St. holds the former fire marshal building, and Quillen said the land could be used for future stormwater retention.

Vice Mayor Hoyt Hamilton said although the city would be gaining higher valued property than it would give up in the deal, he's not comfortable parting with property the city might need in the future.

"To declare something surplus, it means you have absolutely no need for it," Hamilton said. "I cannot in a clear consciences declare those (three) pieces of property surplus as I sit here today."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.