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Available land is a site sore for ayes

There is no shortage of opinions about what should be done with the Maas Brothers site on downtown Clearwater's beautiful bayfront bluff. Suggestions range from a park or a parking lot to upscale shops, restaurants or a hotel. Small wonder.

James Millspaugh and Associates, one of the appraisal firms hired by the city, calls it "a superlative tract .


. probably no more valuable site within the central business district."

Clearwater city commissioners today start the process of deciding whether to make a bid for the property.

The answer has to be yes. That appears to be what they're hearing from residents. Eighty-eight percent of those responding to our recent survey said, "Buy it!" And many of them added, "Before somebody else does!"

They were referring, of course, to the Scientologists, although we carefully had not mentioned the possibility of that group buying the property in the editorial accompanying our survey question. The concern was paramount without our prompting.

The Scientologists say they're not interested because they already have big plans to develop the Gray Moss Inn property across Fort Harrison Avenue from their headquarters. But they could run into problems with state concurrency laws, which say you can't build a major development if public streets and utilities are inadequate to handle it. Everybody knows how congested Fort Harrison (Alt. U.S. 19) already is.

So some in city government aren't ruling them out as potential buyers of the Maas property.

Calvary Baptist Church also has not ruled out the possibility of going after the Maas tract, where many of its parishioners now park on Sunday mornings.

With due respect for my Baptist friends, I hope the city beats them out, too. Their purchase of the Maas property would turn the westernmost block of Cleveland Street into "Church Canyon."

The primary reason the city must try to keep the property out of the hands of the Scientologists or the Baptists is so we don't end up with more privately held land downtown that does not pay taxes.

If the city ends up buying and keeping the land for public, non-taxable use, that's a different story. Then it would belong to all Clearwater residents and, for that matter, all park users in the greater Clearwater area.

City commissioners today also will be discussing whether to make a bid for the Maas property as the city or as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which is the hat commissioners wear when addressing downtown issues.

The latter route makes more sense. It would get the property into public hands but enable the taxpayers, if it comes to that at some point, to say, "We don't need more parkland, we can't afford to pay for it, sell it to commercial developers and get it on the tax rolls."

First things first. Acquire the property if that can be done for a reasonable price. Then figure out, with residents' opinions, its best use.