CLEARWATER — Memo to the Church of Scientology from Clearwater: Take down the sign. Immediately.
On Monday, workers fastened an enormous cover over the tent as tall as a five-story building the church erected downtown in August for an upcoming gathering of the International Association of Scientologists.
The multicolored tent wrap is embossed with the letters KSW, an acronym for "Keeping Scientology Working," and the phrase "The Golden Age of Tech."
The church said the wrap is a religious symbol. The city says it is a sign and therefore subject to Clearwater's strict sign ordinance.
After a Tampa Bay Times story Monday, the church amended its city tent permit on Tuesday, persuading the Fire Department that the tent wrap meets fire codes. But it didn't pass the sign test.
By the end of business on Tuesday, city planning director Michael Delk had a clear message for the church: Take the wrap down or face daily fines up to $250. A church representative told Delk he would relay the message to church leadership.
The church didn't respond to multiple phone calls and emails from the Times.
"Bottom line is, we need to have them take it down," Delk said. "If I could get a commitment that was reasonable, I'd accept it, but from our perspective, it has to be a fairly short time frame. It didn't take them very long to put it up. I don't think it will take very long for them to take it down."
Mayor George Cretekos had strong words for the church Tuesday.
"My frustration with Church of Scientology apparently increases every day. I hate to say that. But I just don't understand why they think they're different than any other church or institution in the city of Clearwater," he said.
Workers installed the wrap Monday, looking like dots beside the giant KSW letters as they dangled from ropes high above the structure.
Tuesday began with an inspection by the Fire Department of the 150,250-square-foot tent that borders Court Street, the primary route to Clearwater Beach. Inspectors gave the church one day to prove its wrap met the fire code. Church officials quickly provided documentation that it did.
But the church failed to persuade city officials that the wrap was a religious symbol. Nor is the wrap a mural. City code defines a mural as depicting a scene or event of natural, social, cultural or historic significance.
From the city's perspective, the sign test hinges on a simple dictum: If it has words on it, it's a sign. And the sign code states that for a structure that size, the space occupied by the words can't exceed about 30 square feet.
The lettering on the Scientology tent is exponentially greater than that, Delk said. How much more?
"It's so big, it really doesn't matter," he said.
Delk will meet with city lawyers Wednesday to determine the best course of action, probably a brief warning followed by a notice of a code violation.
The city's Code Enforcement Board would be the likely destination for the sign case. The board next meets Nov. 20.
"If they take it down, it would avoid all of that, which I would prefer," Delk said.
The tent was erected in August for the meeting of the IAS, a powerful fundraising arm of the Church of Scientology. That meeting is usually held in England but was moved to Clearwater this year.
The city issued a tent permit in August that allows the church to keep the tent up until Jan. 21, 2014.
Since August, though, the church has kept silent about when the IAS gathering will occur. The church had originally applied for a special event permit from the city for the weekend of Nov. 8-9, but the church withdrew that application.
The church is also preparing to open its city-block-sized Flag Building across the street from the tent in a ceremony expected to attract thousands of Scientologists, but the church hasn't revealed a date for that event either.
The clash between the city and the church over the tent wrap is not the first since planning for the two events began. In August, the church cut down two live oak trees on the tent site after city officials told them not to. The church paid a $2,000 fine.
City officials have been frustrated that the church won't provide dates. They wonder how streets and sidewalks already congested by a busy fall event schedule could accommodate unannounced events that the church estimates will draw up to 10,000 members.
Cretekos said it's time for the church to be a better community partner. "What kind of example is this setting for your parishioners, let alone for the city of Clearwater? If it is in fact wanting to be treated as a church, it ought to set an example all of us can be proud of and this is not happening," Cretekos said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago