New Tampa church takes heat over cell tower plans

Grace Episcopal plans to lease some of its land for a cell tower, causing some to question the church’s priorities.

MARLENE SOKOL | Times

Grace Episcopal plans to lease some of its land for a cell tower, causing some to question the church’s priorities.

NEW TAMPA — There were Doughnuts with Dad and Muffins with Mom. There were Thanksgiving powwows and Christmas pageants with children in costume.

Elementary schools welcomed the kids from Grace Episcopal Preschool, confident they were ready for kindergarten.

"They taught Spanish and French," said parent Kristin Mallia. "And the teachers who came in were French. They were Spanish."

Like a lot of New Tampa parents, Mallia relied on Grace Episcopal to give her three children a foundation in academics and social skills, with a strong dose of faith.

But her own faith was shattered in May 2009, when the preschool parted with its popular director, then closed abruptly.

She and others learned later that the church plans to lease some of its land for a cellular telephone tower. Such leases have stirred protests at other schools, with worried parents citing health concerns.

Now, with a cell tower hearing just weeks away, some at Grace Episcopal are wondering: Did their church sacrifice a successful preschool for greater profits?

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At 66, Ed Green spends 15 to 20 hours a week as senior warden, a volunteer position overseeing nonspiritual operations at the 13-year-old church.

He retired early, after a career in commercial real estate investment. He and his wife put two daughters through college and settled in Tampa Palms in 2004.

He and previous warden Mark Anderson acknowledge the church was in talks with T-Mobile about a cell tower long before they closed the preschool, which had been open for more than 10 years.

"What they will pay us will pay our utilities," Green said.

Both men said the preschool was losing money, at a time when the recession was hurting church donations. Pastor Benjamin Twinamaani said as much in a letter to parents in May 2009.

But parents, including former member Crystal Starr, don't believe it. They insist the preschool, with room for about 100, was profitable and had a waiting list.

"It was the school that bailed the church out," said Starr, 45. "I'm surprised the church is still open."

Green said parents who think the preschool made money might not be considering overhead costs — maintenance, insurance, utilities — that the church had to cover.

And while school director Shelby Humbert seemed confident the preschool would fill its seats for 2009-2010, Green and Anderson weren't so sure.

Humbert, now a public school teacher, declined to comment.

But e-mails the parents saved from 2008 and 2009 show she quarreled with church leaders frequently about funding. She was mortified, she wrote, when a check to a county licensing office bounced and when a payment for playground equipment was late. She opposed staff pay cuts, and wanted fundraising proceeds reinvested in the school.

In early 2009, Grace began taking registration for the fall. The school year ended as usual, with an art auction in late April and a faculty luncheon on May 22.

Less than a week later, parents say the church dismissed Humbert at summer camp and in front of her 5-year-old daughter.

When Mallia demanded an explanation, she said Twinamaani told her the church had to cut costs. Twinamaani did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Not long after, parents were told the school was closing. When Mallia confronted Twinamaani again, she said he told her they had no choice: Too many teachers and parents, loyal to Humbert, had pulled out.

The news stunned Starr, who was so committed to the church that when she married, she had her husband baptized there.

"I loved that church and I was so proud," she said. "After what happened, I was ashamed."

• • •

Members of the Tampa Palms Owners Association are watching warily as plans progress for a cell tower.

A rezoning hearing is scheduled for Oct. 14. Some homeowners wonder if more commercial development will follow, but Green said none is planned. The church owns 32 acres, but much of it will be lost to the future widening of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

The empty classrooms, meanwhile, have found a new use. HALO Academy, which specializes in instruction for special needs children, held summer camp there and is leasing space for a smaller school.

Founder Christy Raile said she is not worried about parent backlash over the cell tower because her school serves a need that is not easily met in the community.

To the allegation that Grace got a successful school out of the way to avoid opposition to a tower, Green asked: "Why would you close something that was profitable to wait for something that would pay the utility bills?"

But when asked a question Mallia posed — Why didn't the church simply ask parents to raise more funds for the school? — Green said, "It never came to our mind. We are all fallible."

More than a year later, Mallia is still fuming.

"The churches nowadays, they're not even like they were 30 years ago when I was being raised in them," she said. "They are businesses."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 624-2739 or sokol@stpimes.com.

New Tampa church takes heat over cell tower plans 09/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 4:29pm]

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