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.
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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.