Saturday, August 18, 2018
News Roundup

Clearwater’s land swap with Scientology seemed like a good idea, until it wasn’t, but maybe is again

CLEARWATER — A real estate trade with the Church of Scientology that the city asked for, then shot down, then revived, only to kill it all over again is back for another round, giving whiplash to all involved.

Here’s what’s at play: the city owns three small properties downtown, one with a vacant building and two with a handful of parking spaces, the church wants for its campus. The church owns a vacant lot east of downtown the city wants for retail parking.

If a good old fashioned land swap sounds straightforward here, oh just wait.

At the time these talks began in late 2016, Scientology did not own the vacant lot adjacent to the Nolen apartments at 949 Cleveland St. But Scientology officials knew the city wanted the property and was having trouble buying it from then-owner, developer Guy Bonneville.

Scientology was able to negotiate a purchase with Bonneville and bought the lot in June 2017 for $625,000 with the intention spelled out in the contract that it would then be given to the city in exchange for the three properties Scientology wanted. (Bonneville did not respond to requests for comment then or now.)

The math checked out for the city: Scientology’s new lot was appraised at $600,000, well above the $425,000 value of all three city properties combined.

But when the swap went before the council that month, concerns that had never been concerns before suddenly became concerns.

Turned out, engineering staff said the city might need each of the three parcels after all: the vacant lot at 600 Franklin St. for possible drainage for future development nearby, the nine spaces on Watterson Avenue for parking and the parcel at S Garden Avenue and Court Street because it has utilities underground.

The council voted 4-1 to table the deal, with Bob Cundiff against waiting.

But let’s set the scene here: It had been a rough few months leading up to the vote and these newfound concerns.

Three months earlier, in March, Scientology leader David Miscavige offered to bankroll a multimillion-dollar revitalization of downtown if the city stepped aside and allowed the church to buy a vacant 1.4 acre lot across from City Hall, which borders its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat.

Scientology offered the lot’s owner, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, $15 million for the property. The city voted 5-0 that April to buy it anyway, paying just $4.25 million. Miscavige promptly rescinded his revitalization offer.

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

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In downtown Clearwater, Scientology’s bid for an expanded role is a matter of scripture

It was a quiet summer and fall, with Scientology officials cutting almost all communication with the city after the aquarium property incident and the disintegration of the land swap.

But in December, City Manager Bill Horne said the city urgently needed Scientology’s Cleveland Street lot for parking, as the Nolen complex was struggling to recruit retail and the high rise at 1100 Cleveland St. nearby began construction. Oh and city staff had an update: concerns about needing the three parcels for drainage and parking were false alarms.

So the city’s people talked to the church’s people. The swap went back in front of the council April 19. It died when no one seconded a motion by Cundiff to declare the three city-owned properties surplus. Because they did not take that step, the contract for the land swap did not even get to a vote.

Chalk it up to a rookie mistake. City Council member David Allbritton, elected in March, said later he was confused about the process and did not understand that if the properties were not declared surplus he could not make a motion to reschedule the vote on the contract.

He wasn’t against the swap, but wanted more time to research the issue, he said. Now that he has had a few more weeks, Allbritton on Thursday requested the swap contract return again for a vote again May 17. Again. After all, Allbritton, said, Scientology spent $625,000 to buy an empty lot after the city asked it to.

"When the city asks someone to do something and they do it, I feel we need to follow through on our commitment," Allbritton said.

It appears he has support this time. The council voted 3-2 Thursday to vacate a right-of-way required for the swap.

Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell and City Council member Hoyt Hamilton promised they will not be voting for the deal, this time, because Scientology has gone radio silent.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment.

"We were all elected by the entire city of Clearwater, all the citizens of Clearwater," Caudell said. "Until we can see that organization, like any other organization, working together with us, that will be where I stand."

If anyone is confused, the nameless organization Caudell was referencing is Scientology. Hamilton came out and said it a bit more candidly:

"In my private life, in my business life, I do business with people that I communicate with," Hamilton said. "Right now, Scientology is an organization that is not communicating with us ... The people of Clearwater want to see a vibrant, active, energetic downtown Clearwater with commerce happening. I’m talking restaurants, retail, everything, up and down Cleveland Street ... I haven’t heard that from Scientology. I think we need to hear: is Scientology’s goal the same as our goal?"

"The people of Clearwater deserve to know that," he said.

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

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