Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Clearwater fines Scientology $413,500

Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church, at bottom, is dwarfed by the Church of Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel, right, and its Flag Building, top, in downtown Clearwater. For years, the Flag Building, nicknamed the “Super Power” building, crumbled into disrepair as the city levied a $250-a-day fine.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2003)

Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church, at bottom, is dwarfed by the Church of Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel, right, and its Flag Building, top, in downtown Clearwater. For years, the Flag Building, nicknamed the “Super Power” building, crumbled into disrepair as the city levied a $250-a-day fine.

CLEARWATER — An obscure board of volunteers dealt the Church of Scientology an expensive blow on Wednesday, rejecting a bid to cut more than $400,000 in fines off the long-delayed Flag Building, the church's biggest center in the world.

Since 2006, the city of Clearwater has levied a $250-a-day fine on the church for letting its seven-story building, which fills a downtown block, crumble into disrepair during 12 years of construction.

When the building was finally finished in June, that $450,000 bill became due. But the church asked the city to reduce its fine by 90 percent, to reflect its "good faith" effort in bringing the building to code.

That request went to the city's resident-led Code Enforcement Board, which has a record of leniency and decimating fines. But board members voted unanimously to keep the fines mostly untouched, saying the church had long ignored the city's rules.

"This board's order was not taken seriously," member Sheila Cole said. "That really bothers me."

Officials suggested the church's total fine dip to $413,500, to account for months when plans were paused by city review. The church can appeal within 30 days to circuit court. Spokeswoman Pat Harney said the church would "consider its options."

Construction on Scientology's so-called Flag Mecca, which the church calls the "most important religious training and counseling center in the Scientology world," was plagued with stops and starts since the church's first plan for the building was approved in 1998.

In 2006, city officials complained the neglected project was littered with debris, overgrown with weeds and ringed by chain-link fencing. Attorney Ed Armstrong, who represents the church, began Wednesday's board meeting with an apology for the building's decay.

But he said changes in the city's building codes and the complexity of the church's unique plans made delays inevitable. The church, he added, spent more than $300,000 shortly after the fines began on sidewalks and landscaping to clean up debris, on top of the tens of millions of dollars to finish the building's construction.

The board's rules state it can lower fines if a project comes into compliance or if payment would bear an "extreme or undue hardship." Over the last two years, the board has almost always voted to reduce, meaning code violators — mostly people with shabby lawns or decaying houses — end up paying only about $1,000 in administrative costs.

With that pattern in place, representatives argued the church should be treated no differently. Not reducing the fines, Armstrong argued, would "unfairly penalize" the church and "serve no public purpose."

But assistant city attorney Camilo Soto argued the church should remain responsible for the fines after creating a "self-inflicted shell game" that led to delays.

Soto said the church's work on other downtown projects, including the 13-story Oak Cove and the 11-story Fort Harrison Hotel, showed the church thought fixing the eyesore was a low priority. "It could have been done," Soto said, "but they chose not to."

The Flag Building will offer a highly secretive program that Scientologists say increases perception and enhances spiritual abilities. One Scientologist who completed the training in Los Angeles, Matt Feshbach, told the Times in 2006 he could sense danger quicker and could appreciate beauty more deeply.

Nicknamed the "Super Power" building, the Clearwater site will host the only such program in the world. Church representatives would not say how much the program costs.

The building also will host counseling in more than 300 rooms across its top six floors. The ground floor will hold a grand lobby and chapel.

Harney said the church would focus its attention now on Scientologists coming to visit the building. A ribbon cutting is planned for later this year.

"This is our cathedral," Harney said. "It's not just a simple project. This is a church. Our church."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater fines Scientology $413,500 08/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 10:53pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Judge throws out $458,000 condo sale, says Clearwater attorney tricked bidders

    Real Estate

    CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold on Monday threw out the $458,100 sale of a gulf-front condo because of what he called an "unscrupulous" and "conniving" scheme to trick bidders at a foreclosure auction.

    John Houde, left, whose Orlando copany was the high  bidder June 8 at the foreclosure auction of a Redington Beach condo, looks in the direction of Clearwater lawyer and real estate investor Roy C. Skelton, foreground,  during a hearing Monday before Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold.  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times ]
  2. Vision Zero plan to make Hillsborough roads safer to be unveiled

    Transportation

    TAMPA — Vision Zero, the coalition trying to make Hillsborough County safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, is set to unveil its action plan on Tuesday morning.

    Members of the Vision Zero workshop cross Hillsborough Avenue and Kelly Road during a on-street audit of Town 'N Country roads in January. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |   Times]
  3. Pasco EDC names business incubator head in Dade City, will open second site

    Business

    Pasco County economic development officials are busy reigniting their business start-up resources following the departure earlier this year of Krista Covey, who ran the Pasco Economic Development Council's SMARTStart business incubator in Dade City.

    Andrew Romaner was promoted this summer to serve as program director of the Dade City SMARTStart Entrepreneur Center, a start-up incubator service of the Pasco Economic Development Council. He succeeds Krista Covey, who relocated to Texas for another startup position. [Courtesy of Pasco EDC]
  4. What you need to know for Tuesday, Aug. 22

    News

    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    Clearwater lawyer and real estate investor Roy C. Skelton, center, attends a hearing on Monday Circuit Court Judge Jack St. Arnold at the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater. The hearing was requested by attorneys representing John Houde, left, who filed a motion to invalidate the sale of a $458,000 Redington Beach condo, a deal orchestrated by Skelton, who stands accused of deliberately misleading bidders in a the June 8 foreclosure auction. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
  5. Sarasota GOP names Dick Cheney 'Statesman of the Year'

    Blogs

    Former Vice President Dick Cheney will be honored as "Statesman of Year" by the Sarasota GOP, a title that twice went to Donald Trump.

    Dick and Liz Cheney