Clearwater Council kills land swap with Scientology for a second time in one year

A rendering of the proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall, a 3,600-seat auditorium the Church of Scientology has proposed building along Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater. Two of the three city-owned parcels involved in a land swap approved Thursday border the proposed auditorium site.
[Freedom Magazine]
A rendering of the proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall, a 3,600-seat auditorium the Church of Scientology has proposed building along Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater. Two of the three city-owned parcels involved in a land swap approved Thursday border the proposed auditorium site. [Freedom Magazine]
Published April 20 2018
Updated April 20 2018

CLEARWATER — In June, after months of negotiations with city staff, the Church of Scientology bought a vacant lot on the edge of downtown for the purpose of trading it for three small city-owned parcels.

Now it’s likely Scientology will keep control of what downtown’s Community Redevelopment Agency director calls "a key acquisition piece" for the city.

The City Council on Thursday killed the deal with Scientology when no council member seconded a motion to declare the three city-owned properties surplus. Because they did not take that step, the contract for the land swap did not even go to a vote as scheduled.

Negotiations for the land swap began in late 2016 but have devolved as the relationship between the city and the church —downtown’s largest property owner — has fractured.

"I have reservations doing business with anybody that isn’t communicating with me," City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said in an interview after the meeting. "Is our goal their goal? How do we answer that?"

Scientology officials have cut most communication with the city after the Council voted unanimously in April 2017 to buy a 1.4-acre downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Scientology needed the lot for its campus and offered to pay the aquarium three times the city’s price.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater City Council votes 5-0 to buy downtown parcel coveted by the Church of Scientology

The council rejected the swap for the first time in June, when officials voted to postpone the decision by 4-1, with council member Bob Cundiff opposed to waiting. In March, City Council member Bill Jonson left office due to term limits and retired building contractor David Allbritton was elected to his seat.

City Manager Bill Horne said he and City Attorney Pam Akin restarted discussions with Scientology officials this year because staff believes the church’s lot adjacent to The Nolen apartments at 949 Cleveland St. is needed for retail parking.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater City Council again thwarts Scientology land deal

In exchange for the vacant lot, the church would have acquired three city properties: 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.

The Scientology lot is worth $185,000 more than the city’s three properties combined and is three times as big, according to city appraisals.

The Franklin Street property and the Garden Avenue parcel both border the footprint of where Scientology plans to build the 3,600-seat L. Ron Hubbard Hall auditorium. Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw has not responded to questions about how the church would have used the Watterson Avenue property, about four blocks north of the proposed auditorium site.

Attorney Katie Cole, who represented the church in the deal, declined to comment Thursday.

Although Akin, the city attorney, explained the process during Thursday’s meeting, Allbritton said he did not understand the council had to declare the three city properties surplus in order to vote on the trade contract. If he had realized that, Allbritton said he would have seconded the motion made by Cundiff Thursday to declare the properties surplus so the council could have discussed the deal.

If the contract had come up for a vote, Allbritton said he would have made a motion to again postpone the trade to give him more time to gather information.

Allbritton said he wants confirmation about what other downtown properties Scientology officials are preparing to buy, because they have not been forthcoming about their long-term plans.

"I do have concerns about the deal," Allbritton said. "I do want to show good faith, yet I need to have more information."

The City Charter prohibits the mayor from making or seconding motions. Had the contract come to a vote, Mayor George Cretekos said he would have supported it so the city could acquire much needed parking.

The 257-unit Nolen was completed last fall, but Peter Collins, managing principal for developer Forge Capital Partner, said he’s struggled to recruit businesses to the complex’s ground floor retail because of the lack of parking.

Community Redevelopment Agency Director Amanda Thompson said Scientology’s lot adjacent to the Nolen, which can hold 50 to 60 spaces, could have served the Nolen, along with the 15-story apartment tower with retail space under construction at 1100 Cleveland St., and two city-owned properties within walking distance she plans to promote for residential development this year.

Thompson said it "is urgent" to acquire Scientology’s lot for parking to help restaurant and retail businesses downtown.

Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell has previously said she does not think the city should be investing in more parking lots.

On Thursday she expressed concerns about giving up the city’s parking spaces on Garden Avenue because it has a web of utilities underground. She also noted city staff has considered the Franklin Street property to be useful as a future stormwater retention site. But Engineering Director Scott Rice said Thursday that he determined the Franklin Street property to no longer be essential.

So is the land swap dead for good?

Allbritton said he is considering bringing the item back to the council’s May meeting after he gathers more information.

But will Scientology officials be game for round three after being rejected twice now?

"It’s not good," Allbritton said of Thursday’s outcome. "I didn’t want to send that message."

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

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