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Church's bargain could be burden

One of your most respected neighbors, a Methodist church, is trying to make a fat profit on a land transaction.

You have a personal stake. The only customer for the church's land is your county government, and the only dollars buying this land will be your tax dollars.

The land is part of the George F. Young Memorial United Methodist Church complex alongside East Lake Road.

This is one of the hottest development corridors in Pinellas nowadays, so the county is caught in one of those vises of growth: It needs land to widen the road at the same time that land prices along it are soaring.

When the Methodists bought the strip in 1981 along with the rest of their tract, they paid $9,343 an acre.

Now they want Pinellas County to pay $70,000 to $80,000 an acre. Their 13-year profit would be at least $250,000, or about 650 percent.

Of course, windfalls like this happen wherever growth gushes. They are perfectly American, perfectly legal, perfectly fair.

But this case is a little different.

The church bought its property with the stipulation that the 4.15-acre strip along the road would have to be turned over someday for road widening. Now the big question is this: Was the church obligated to give the land to the county or sell it to the county?

It would be nice if the legal papers had used words like give and sell. But no. They have phrasing like will be required to dedicate, and shall have reserved thereon.

The county is suing so a judge can figure it out.

If the county deserves the strip for free, it did not help its case in 1989 by making a $355,000 deal for it.

One humdrum vote by the County Commission and a check would have been cut.

At the last minute, somebody pointed out the old legal papers.

The county also isn't helped by a Florida condemnation law that tilts heavily in favor of the property owner.

Condemning land here sometimes costs more than building a road on it, and a generous settlement is usually cheaper than court.

Michael Gaines, the Methodists' lawyer, specializes in such cases. He thinks the county should be forced to condemn the church's strip like any other parcel.

Methodists, like their lawyer, remember the near-$355,000 and are confident.

"We feel that it is our money and we're doing the right thing," said member Karen Wubbenhorst.

Yet they feel the controversy.

"I've heard people in the post office and I've heard people in the shopping center," Mrs. Wubbenhorst said.

"It's not like we're terrible un-Christian people."

Starr Stevens, a member of the administrative board, said money from the county would help pay off a building debt, freeing other money for Christian missions of the church.

"It is hard," she said, "if that is our legal right and we're entitled to that money, to say, "Go ahead, don't give us any money; build the road.'

"

The legalities confuse me. But money talks, and the church's original payment of $9,343 an acre keeps whispering to me.

"This land sold at a discount," it says. "You don't get land this cheap, smack on East Lake Road, unless there are big strings attached."

I don't think the Methodists hear this, at least not anymore.

Pastors, lawyers and members have come and gone. The church is focused on the present and the future.

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