CLEARWATER — An enormous mural draped Monday over a massive tent that was erected downtown by the Church of Scientology might violate city sign laws, city officials said.
The church, which didn't alert the city in advance about the mural, later told the city's planning director that it's a religious symbol.
Planning director Michael Delk said he will have to determine how much of the mural is signage and how much is symbol.
"We don't issue permits for Christmas trees," Delk said. "But we do regulate signage for churches."
Delk said he would talk more today with church representatives to make that determination. The city strictly regulates the size and number of signs that may be erected on a property, but the Scientology mural dwarfs even the largest billboards referenced in city codes.
Sunset aficionados on the way to Clearwater Beach on Monday afternoon had the best view of the colorful mural as it was installed by workers who looked like mountain climbers as they hung from ropes above the almost five-story tent. The tent is located at the intersection of Court Street and S Garden Avenue.
The draping, which covers both the eastern and western sides of the tent, has a multi-hued design that appears to contain the letters K, S and W (letters the church uses as an acronym for "Keep Scientology Working"), plus sketches of water, a sun and portions of a bridge.
Near the top of the mural are the words "The Golden Age of Tech," an apparent reference to an initiative launched by the church in 1995 to use technology to increase the precision of auditing, or Scientology counseling.
A church spokesman did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment and more detail about what the mural represents.
The church erected the tent in August for a planned Nov. 8-9 gathering of the International Association of Scientologists. But minutes after the church submitted an application for a city special events permit for that date, it withdrew the request and hasn't submitted anything else.
Normally held in England, the IAS gathering this year was moved to Clearwater, the church's spiritual headquarters, possibly because the church's long-delayed Flag Building is expected to officially open soon. The dedication of the Flag Building, which has cost the church about $145 million to build and occupies an entire city block, was originally tentatively scheduled for Oct. 6, but later delayed.
Many church observers and some in city government suspect that the church plans to combine the two events and hold them within the next few weeks. The church has remained silent.
City officials were unaware that the mural was being installed until asked about it by the Tampa Bay Times. The city's strict sign laws brought a federal lawsuit, settled out of court in 2009, after a bait and tackle shop was fined for painting a mural of fish on an exterior wall. The owners said it was a work of art. The city called it an illegal sign.
If city officials determine that the Scientology mural violates city code and the church refuses to take it down, the city could withhold a certificate of occupancy for the tent, said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.
It was unclear late Monday if an absence of that certificate would mean that the church would violate fire codes or other laws if it chose to use the tent for events anyway.
The tent has apparently been equipped with a sound system, air conditioning and wooden floors. Recently, loud music was heard blaring from inside. The church has erected barricades and posted no-trespassing signs around the tent.
In recent days, a flurry of activity has surrounded the Flag Building, the tent and a lot next door to the church's Fort Harrison hotel that church officials described as a new garden breezeway.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.