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Clearwater says huge Scientology sign will soon collect fines

The Church of Scientology told the city its lettered cover is crucial to upcoming celebrations. The tent has a permit.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Church of Scientology told the city its lettered cover is crucial to upcoming celebrations. The tent has a permit.

CLEARWATER — Church of Scientology representatives made their pitch to a key city official Thursday, attempting to convince him that a colorful wrap covering the church's massive tent downtown isn't a sign, but a crucial part of several upcoming church celebrations.

But city planning director Michael Delk remained unmoved. He concluded the tent wrap is an illegal sign, and he said he will post a notice of violation on the property by the close of business Friday.

"At this point in time, there is nothing to suggest a change in our path," he said.

City officials have decided that the wrap, embossed with an acronym for "Keeping Scientology Working" and the phrase "The Golden Age of Tech" in enormous lettering, violates the city sign code because it exceeds the 30-odd square feet of lettering allowed for a structure that size.

Scientology has until Tuesday or Wednesday to remove the wrap from the 150,000-square-foot tent, Delk said. If the church doesn't, it could be subject to a fine of up to $250 a day after a city Code Enforcement Board hearing Nov. 20.

The church didn't respond to an email and phone call from the Tampa Bay Times requesting comment.

During the meeting with Delk, church officials stressed the importance of the wrap, Delk said. They said the church planned to hold two or three special events in the tent and planned to remove and reinstall the wrap — possibly using different wraps — several times for those events, he said.

One of those events is expected to be the dedication of the church's Flag Building on Fort Harrison Avenue, a $145 million building that the Church of Scientology considers to be its cathedral. The dedication originally was scheduled for early October, but was delayed and the church has not revealed a new date.

Another high-profile event, the annual gathering of the International Association of Scientologists, a powerful fundraising arm of the church, was tentatively scheduled for Nov. 8-9, but the church's application for a city special events permit was withdrawn and never resubmitted.

Rumors of a third event that would occur in the tent have circulated, but the church has not commented. The tent can hold several thousand people and stands directly across Franklin Street from the new Flag Building. The area has been a beehive of activity in recent weeks. The church, though, hasn't released any public statements about the events or given city officials any firm indication of when they might be held.

The church's tent permit, approved in August, allows the five-story tent to remain in place until mid January on property bordering Court Street, the primary route to Clearwater Beach.

Another Court Street property has also been cited for a sign violation this week. A city code inspector wrote up a notice of violation of the sign code for a banner hanging on a building directly across Court Street from the Scientologists' tent. The large banner urges voters to support a new downtown aquarium that is the subject of a city referendum Tuesday.

That building is owned by Robert Roperti, according to county property records. Words on the banner indicate it was paid for by a group supporting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Friends of CMA.

The city needs to treat all violations the same, Delk said. "We try our best to be consistent."

The tent-wrap ruckus is the latest in a series of tense encounters between the church and the city over the preparations for the church celebrations. In August, the church paid a $2,000 fine after it cut down two live oak trees on the tent site in defiance of city directives.

On Thursday, Mayor George Cretekos made an appeal to the estimated 7,500 members of the Church of Scientology in the Tampa Bay area, asking them to persuade church leadership to be more flexible. "In the church's case, it appears that they don't care. That's why I would ask their parishioners to say, 'Hey, help the city out; it's our city, too.' "

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago

Clearwater says huge Scientology sign will soon collect fines 10/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 31, 2013 9:25pm]
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