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A Times Editorial

Scientology must pay every penny of fines

There is a big difference between a small property owner who neglects to cut his grass and a multimillion-dollar international organization that takes 12 years to finish a building in the heart of Clearwater's downtown. The city's Code Enforcement Board must hold the Church of Scientology accountable and aggressively seek $450,000 in fines the church owes for code violations. The church has been on notice for years it was defying the law, and now it's time for it to pay.

For much of the last decade, the entire 200 block of Fort Harrison Avenue has been an eyesore — a gigantic shell of a building surrounded by a chain-link fence. The church began construction on the "Super Power" building in 1998 but only obtained its certificate of occupancy on June 6 after numerous construction fits and stops. Multiple times in between, city leaders sought to urge the church along only to be rebuffed. Finally in 2006, the city began assessing fines of $250 a day.

Now church representatives have told officials that the church will seek a reduction in the fine at the Code Enforcement Board's July meeting. As St. Petersburg Times' reporter Drew Harwell reported, the all-volunteer board is generally receptive to fee reduction requests: Only two of 14 such requests in the past two years haven't been granted. And fines totaling more than $229,000 have been trimmed to $16,000.

But this is no routine case of a landlord who forgot to treat a pool or of a resident who has a car up on blocks in the front yard. Most often the board's cases involve far smaller infractions — not a decadelong delay in finishing a multimillion-dollar edifice that reshaped Clearwater's skyline.

This willful defiance was committed by one of the city's most prominent property owners that clearly has the resources to pay. The church, after all, just found another $6.7 million last month to buy an additional two parcels of downtown property from Pinellas County. And no small property owner could possibly hope to so blatantly ignore the building code for so long and not be held to account.

In 2007, when Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and City Manager Bill Horne met with church leader David Miscavige to encourage completion of the Super Power building, Miscavige told them the church would pay the fines when the building was complete.

Now the building is finished. Miscavige should honor that promise and pay every single penny. But if the church insists on pressing its case, the Code Enforcement Board must say no.

Otherwise, the city risks seeing its building code ignored every time the Church of Scientology or any other major landowner undertakes construction.

Scientology must pay every penny of fines 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 5:23pm]
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