Thursday, September 20, 2018
News Roundup

Scientology sends city a message: Don't let religious bias affect land deal

CLEARWATER — A Church of Scientology lawyer says the city's recent decision to back away from a land swap with the church was "unfounded," and she signaled in a letter that her clients will be watching to see if religious discrimination might be at play.

The lawyer, Monique Yingling of Washington, D.C., said the swap had been in the works for six months, with city staff never expressing "even a hint of a concern" about needing the three small parcels it would be giving up. Plus, the city would be gaining, in exchange, a vacant lot on Cleveland Street it needs for parking worth $175,000 more than the three parcels combined.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater City Council again thwarts Scientology land deal

RELATED: Inside Scientology

The Clearwater City Council last month killed the swap, deciding it wasn't ready to part with the three parcels.

In her letter Monday to City Manager Bill Horne, Yingling proposed a new deal for the church to get the land it wants, and cited another sale the city made to Calvary Baptist Church in 2015. She said Scientology is asking "for the same consideration and treatment the city afforded another religious institution in the community."

Horne defended the council's decision, saying in an interview that the church is crying religious discrimination where it doesn't exist.

"They are trying to suggest our actions are driven by some kind of religious bias," Horne said "There's no basis for it. I'm so disappointed when I hear these kinds of comments suggesting we'd do anything other than an evaluation based on facts."

In light of the land swap falling through, Yingling asked the city to at least sell Scientology one of the three parcels in question, a sliver at the corner of Court Street and South Garden Avenue, which currently holds seven city parking spaces.

The parcel borders the footprint of the church's proposed $150 million performance hall and convention center, L. Ron Hubbard Hall, and is "an integral and necessary component" of that project, Yingling said.

Horne said there is no urgency to act on the church's request and said he has not committed to even putting it before the council for a vote.

When voting the deal down June 14, City Council members cited fears they may need the two other city properties in the failed deal. During a work session two days earlier, Engineering Director Michael Quillen said the former fire marshal building at 600 Franklin Street, also bordering Scientology's proposed auditorium, could be used for stormwater retention for nearby development. In addition, he said, nine parking spaces near the Garden Avenue parking garage could serve future public demand downtown.

But during private discussions with the church over the past six months, and during the June 14 presentation before the council, city staff never provided much reason for needing the seven spaces on Court Street, Yingling wrote.

And Scientology, she notes, has held up its end of the bargain: After church spokesman Ben Shaw began negotiations for the swap in October, Community Redevelopment Agency Director Seth Taylor selected the vacant lot adjacent to the nearly completed Nolen apartments east of downtown as a property the city vitally needs but was having difficulties acquiring.

In January, Scientology secured a contract with the lot's owner, a company managed by developer Guy Bonneville, with an agreement to then swap the property for the three city parcels.

Despite the council voting down the trade, Scientology followed through with buying the Nolen lot — the $625,000 sale closed June 27.

The land swap negotiations overlapped with the peak of recent tensions between the city and Scientology, when the city bought a 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street in April for $4.25 million from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The church said it needed the property for its adjacent Oak Cove religious retreat and had upped its offer to the aquarium twice to $15 million before the city's purchase.

Earlier, in private meetings with the City Council, Scientology leader David Miscavige proposed bankrolling a facade beautification of Cleveland Street, recruiting high-end retail to empty storefronts, and building an entertainment complex with actor Tom Cruise if the city stepped aside and allowed the church to buy the Pierce Street lot. Miscavige made clear the retail offer depended on the church being able to acquire the lot for its retreat.

But the council voted in April to buy the land from the aquarium instead. And after that, Horne said, the church stopped returning the city's emails and phone calls. He said the silence from the church's end delayed talks about the land swap that had been scheduled for May.

When Shaw finally responded and scheduled a meeting for May 31, Horne said the discussion focused on what the future relationship between the church and the city would look like.

As downtown's largest property owner, Horne said the city needs to be updated about the church's plans for its non-religious property in the downtown core and whether Scientology intends to continue acquiring land. He also said it's vital the church support the city's $55 million Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan, and the November referendum to enable key development on the downtown bluff.

Despite posing those questions, Horne said he didn't get a clear answer from church officials. And still hasn't.

"They say, 'We have no desire to fight with the city,' they keep saying that, but as I get to know them better I question some of that," Horne said.

Shaw pushed back in a statement to the Times on Friday, saying the church has been transparent by informing the city over the last several years about its need for the aquarium's Pierce Street lot, and the city's parcels surrounding the proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall site.

He did not directly address Horne's question about whether Scientology will support Imagine Clearwater redevelopment and the November referendum. He said in his statement: "The seven parking spots in question have absolutely nothing to do with the bluff."

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

Comments
The Daystarter: Rays keep rolling in playoff chase; how the Mississippi River is affecting Red Tide; behind the scenes at Howl-O-Scream

The Daystarter: Rays keep rolling in playoff chase; how the Mississippi River is affecting Red Tide; behind the scenes at Howl-O-Scream

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.• Start the day with a 30 percent chance of isolated showers and thunderstorms, which will grow to 50 percent in the afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. The high will ...
Updated: 12 minutes ago
Boston incident sparks concern over testing gas pipes in St. Pete

Boston incident sparks concern over testing gas pipes in St. Pete

By SUHAUNA HUSSAINTimes Staff WriterST. PETERSBURG — One day after a string of fiery natural-gas explosions rocked three Massachusetts towns,St. Petersburg sent out a notice to residents warning them that Florida Gas Transmission will be testing its...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Romano: We need education solutions not slogans from DeSantis, Gillum

Romano: We need education solutions not slogans from DeSantis, Gillum

And 200,000 third-graders just rolled their eyes.I swear, even they can see through the education proposals offered by gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum this week.Let’s see, the Republican wants more privatization. And the Democ...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Another reason Florida’s Red Tide is so bad this year: Pollution from the Mississippi River

Another reason Florida’s Red Tide is so bad this year: Pollution from the Mississippi River

The Red Tide algae bloom now tossing tons of dead fish on Pinellas County’s beaches has been fueled for months by many things — runoff from over-fertilized lawns, leaking septic tanks and sewage lines, even dust from the Sahara Desert.Now add anoth...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Are these guys threatening to turn AL wild card into a race? Just ask the Rays

Are these guys threatening to turn AL wild card into a race? Just ask the Rays

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Rays still have got a long way to go and a short time to get there if they're gonna do what they say can't be done.If the Smokey and the Bandit paraphrase doesn't work for you, then let's try another theatrical reference....
Updated: 7 hours ago
Lightning falls to Hurricanes again in preseason

Lightning falls to Hurricanes again in preseason

The Lightning did not fare much better in its second preseason crack at the Hurricanes.In fact, it did worse.It lost 6-1 Wednesday in Raleigh, N.C.Carolina put a much more veteran team on the ice than it did Tuesday in winning Tampa Bay's preseason o...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Jameis Winston’s Uber ride will never be forgotten, and shouldn’t

Jameis Winston’s Uber ride will never be forgotten, and shouldn’t

Just when you thought it was fun to be a Bucs fan again. Just when you were blissfully under the spell of FitzMagic. Just when the Bucs were becoming the cool kids in the NFL with the latest greatest show on turf.Just as the good times have arrived, ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Buccaneers-Eagles All-22: Why Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fitzmagic could be real

Buccaneers-Eagles All-22: Why Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fitzmagic could be real

It’s just a mirage.At any moment now, Ryan Fitzpatrick will come crashing back to Earth. He’ll go back to being the Fitzpatrick of 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Quarterbacks don’t t...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Busted, baby: Rapper Plies arrested at Tampa International Airport

Busted, baby: Rapper Plies arrested at Tampa International Airport

TAMPA — The rapper Plies, aka Algernod Lanier Washington, was arrested at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday after authorities say a gun was found in his carry-on bag.The 42-year-old Wesley Chapel resident faces a charge of carrying a concealed...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Wednesday’s Rays-Rangers game

Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Wednesday’s Rays-Rangers game

OF Tommy Pham is playing with a sore groin and a sorer right ring finger, but he is determined, in his words, to "salvage" his season, and his two home runs Wednesday give him 19 total, five in 28 games with the Rays since the trade to go with a .327...
Updated: 8 hours ago