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Clearwater looks to revisit land swap with Church of Scientology

By Tracey McManus
This rectangular piece of property between S Garden and Fort Harrison avenues on Court Street is one of three city-owned parcels officials hope to give to the Church of Scientology in exchange for a vacant lot on Cleveland Street. City officials say they need the church's Cleveland Street lot to use for retail parking. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

CLEARWATER ó In June, City Council members surprised Church of Scientology officials when they voted to halt a land swap that had been in the works for months.

The church had bought a vacant lot just east of downtown under the impression it could trade it for three small city-owned parcels Scientology needs for its campus.

When it came time to make the trade official, however, engineering staff cautioned the city may need those unused parcels in the future. Council members decided the timing was not right and voted 4-1 to postpone the swap indefinitely with Council member Bob Cundiff voting against waiting.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater City Council again thwarts Scientology land deal

Citing a now-urgent need for the Scientology-owned lot on Cleveland Street to use as retail parking, the city has asked to restart negotiations with the church. But since the first time around, local church officials have gone dark on communicating with the city.

City attorney Pam Akin said she contacted Scientology attorneys at the end of November to arrange a meeting with local church officials and update the conversation. She said she has still not gotten a response on whether they are willing to meet.

City Manager Bill Horne said Scientology leader David Miscavige called him on Dec. 8 because "he was apparently aware of (Akin) reaching out and not getting a response."

"He said for us to move forward with it, and thatís what weíre trying to do," Horne said.

Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw did not respond to a request for comment.

Horne said if church officials are not willing to meet with city staff, the details will have to be worked out between each sideís lawyers and could go to the Council for a vote early next year. Church staff has drastically cut back communication after the City Council voted in April to buy a 1.4 acre downtown lot the church also coveted.

This land swap would involve the church trading its lot, adjacent to the Nolen apartment complex at 949 Cleveland St., 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.

After the Council voted down the swap, Scientology attorney Monique Yingling called the decision unfounded because the deal had been in the works for six months with no previous sign of hesitation from staff.

She stated in a letter her clients would be watching to see if religious discrimination was at play.

City commissioned appraisals showed the Scientology lot is valued at $600,000, well above the $425,000 combined value of the three city parcels.

But since they voted to postpone the trade, some City Council members who had reservations say those concerns have changed over the six months.

While engineering staff told the Council in June the city might need the Franklin Street parcel as drainage for future development nearby, Engineering Director Scott Rice said this week a drainage pond could be built elsewhere.

Staff also said in June the city might need the nine parking spaces near the Garden Avenue garage for future demand, but Rice said Tuesday that is unlikely. The spaces only generated $400 in revenue this year, and plans for a future downtown garage make those few spots less necessary, Rice said.

City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said that re-evaluation makes him more comfortable with parting ways with the parcels than he felt in June.

Construction on the 257-unit Nolen apartment complex, which is directly adjacent to the Scientology lot, was also completed this fall. But because there is only parking for residents, Peter Collins, managing principal for developer Forge Capital Partners, said he has not been able to recruit any businesses to fill the 10,000-square-feet of retail space.

"Building retail with not great parking is a challenge," Collins said. "Thatís the first thing people ask about."

Developers for the long-abandoned Strand high-rise across the street from the Nolen are also in the permitting process for renovations. That project also includes bottom-floor retail, which Hamilton said could also benefit from city-owned parking across the street.

"Given that information, Iím willing to talk about it again," Hamilton said.

Council member Doreen Caudell however said she is not convinced the city should be investing in more parking spaces and should prioritize alternative modes of transportation.

"Your future may not need parking," Caudell said. "The last thing you want to do is make knee-jerk reactions...we have not done a sufficient job collectively of transit-oriented development in order for us to say we need that piece of property for parking."

Aside from logistics, the city has also cleared some political hurdles since first discussing the land swap.

In June, city officials were advocating for the public to support a November referendum to allow construction along the downtown waterfront, enabling the $55 million Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan.

Now that the referendum passed, Mayor George Cretekos acknowledged there is less risk of the public misinterpreting a real estate deal with Scientology, about which many in the community carry reservations.

"Iím not going to tell you I wasnít concerned about how it would be interpreted on both sides," Cretekos said. "Both those who are opposed to the church or question dealings with the church, but also the church itself."

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