CLEARWATER — The city said no, but the Church of Scientology did it anyway, cutting down two healthy live oak trees this weekend near its downtown headquarters to make way for a massive tent being erected for an international gathering of Scientologists in November.
The removal of the approximately 20-foot-tall trees caught city officials and even the church's own contracted arborist by surprise on Monday.
"I was working on relocating those trees," said Rick Albee, a retired Clearwater arborist who now owns his own consulting company, Urban Forestry Solutions. "I didn't recommend it."
Neither did the city. In an Aug. 21 meeting, city planners explicitly stated that a "natural resource plan must be in place that ensures the survival of any trees impacted by this project."
"These two trees were fine. There was no reason for their removal," said Robert Tefft, the city's development review manager.
The city fined the church about $2,000 for the illegal tree cutting. The church paid the fine Monday.
"We have reimbursed the tree bank for the value of the trees, just like any other developer would do," Pat Harney, a church spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Even though the trees were cut down illegally, the church's application for a special events permit to erect the tent — expected to hold the "vast majority" of the estimated 8,000 attendees for the International Association of Scientologists Anniversary Weekend — won't be adversely affected.
At least from the city Planning Department's perspective.
"At this point, there is no reason for us to say no," Tefft said.
City manager Bill Horne said the church knew what it was doing.
"They purposefully disregarded the guidance we'd given them. They knew it, they disregarded it," he said. "But let's put this in context. This is not uncommon for some property owners to do this."
Clearwater has a strict tree ordinance that requires property owners to get a city permit before cutting down trees above a certain size.
The Church of Scientology has moved trees rather than chopping them down in the past. In August 1998, the church used hydraulics and a wood and steel track to move a 65-foot-tall, 125-ton live oak from one spot to another on S Harrison Avenue. It was done to make way for construction of the church's Flag Building, scheduled to open in early October.
"As far as trees go, the Church has a record of preserving old trees and fostering new growth," Harney wrote. "The Church even made the Guinness Book of World Records for relocating and preserving the largest live oak tree, at that time — 'Sam' — which is still alive and well in the front of the new Flag Building."
Albee said he met with a tree relocation company on Friday that estimated the trees had an 80 percent chance of survival if they were moved.
As for the health of the two trees, Albee had rated one a 4 on a 0-to-6 scale (with 0 being dead) and the other a 3.
The trees were located in parking lot islands, with their roots surrounded by limestone and concrete, so their viability was limited, Albee said.
Horne said he has seen renderings of a church plan to build a concert hall on the vacant site, although no plans have been submitted. Perhaps that figured into the church's decision, he said.
"As reported in the St. Petersburg Times on November 21, 2011, everybody knows this is the future site of the L. Ron Hubbard Hall," Harney wrote.
In any event, church leaders should have planned better, Horne said. Rumors that the long-delayed Flag Building would open this year have been circulating for months, but the application for the grand opening event wasn't delivered to the city until Aug. 16.
"If they had planned this event months ago, there may have been a way to avoid this situation," Horne said.
On Sept. 3, city staff will give church representatives a checklist of required steps for the permits to be issued for the Flag Building's Oct. 6 grand opening and the November Association of Scientologists event.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago