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Clearwater City Council again thwarts Scientology land deal

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. [Freedom Magazine.]

CLEARWATER — The City Council blocked another land deal involving the Church of Scientology on Wednesday night, adding uncertainty to its already tense relationship with downtown's largest landowner.

Discussions began late last year over the city trading three properties it owns to the church for a lot east of downtown to be used for retail parking. The church wants two of the city's parcels for part of its proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall downtown.

But the City Council voted 4-1 to postpone a decision indefinitely, with member Bob Cundiff in opposition.

"I'm not saying I'm not willing to do the deal at some point, I'm just not ready to do it today," council member Hoyt Hamilton said.

At a work session Monday, engineering director Michael Quillen said the city might need each of the three parcels in the future. On Wednesday, City Council members expressed concerns about parting with them.

Scientology has been under contract since January to buy the vacant lot on Cleveland Street for $625,000. It is currently owned by a company managed by developer Guy Bonneville. Under terms of the proposed agreement, the church would then swap the property for the three city-owned parcels.

This week's shift in attitude was the first sign of hesitation expressed by city officials since negotiations with the church began, according to attorney Katie Cole, who is representing Scientology in the deal.

Cole said the church has a $75,000 nonrefundable deposit tied to the deal.

"Until Monday, after months of negotiation and discussion with the city staff, the church was not aware of any concern that this would be anything other than surplus property," Cole said.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The land swap would involve the church trading the lot it has under contract, which is adjacent to the Nolen apartment complex on Cleveland Street, in exchange for: 600 Franklin St., which holds the former fire marshal building; a parcel on the northwest corner of S Garden Avenue and Court Street with seven parking spaces; and nine parking spaces on Watterson Avenue that abut the Garden Avenue parking garage.

Wednesday's vote comes on the heels of the city buying a 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street in April for $4.25 million from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The church wanted the property for its adjacent Oak Cove religious retreat and had upped its offer to the aquarium twice to $15 million before the city's purchase.

City Manager Bill Horne said the church stopped returning the city's emails and phone calls after the City Council bought the aquarium land in April. The council had originally been scheduled to discuss the swap of the three unrelated city parcels last month, but the vote was postponed because of the lack of communication until Scientology officials met with Horne and city attorney Pam Akin May 31.

City Council members on Wednesday did not set a date to revisit the land swap.

The value of the city's three parcels totals $425,000, according to appraisals ordered by the city in February. The city also obtained an appraisal of Bonneville's vacant lot adjacent to the Nolen, which is valued at $600,000.

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

Bonneville declined to comment on the negotiations or whether he offered Scientology a better deal than the city. Bonneville is also the manager of his father-in-law's company, which owns the Tampa Bay Times Clearwater bureau building at 1130 Cleveland St.

Hamilton, the council member, acknowledged the city would have been gaining higher valued property than it would have given up in the deal. But the city engineering staff said the Franklin Street property could be used for stormwater retention in the future, and Hamilton wasn't confident about giving up the two other properties that hold valued parking space.