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Clearwater drops case over zoning of church

The city hopes to reach a deal with Church of Hope, which has many poor and homeless members.

Rather than go to trial this week in Pinellas County Court, Clearwater dropped its zoning violation case Wednesday against controversial minister Randy Morrow.

City rules prohibit churches from locating on lots of less than 20,000 square feet in areas zoned for business. In October, the city cited Morrow because he was preaching at Church of Hope, located within a strip mall at 1444 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.

Morrow's Clearwater attorney, John McGuire, argued that the city was preventing Church of Hope members _ many of them poor and homeless _ from freely practicing their religion by dictating where they could worship.

Assistant City Attorney Leslie Dougall-Sides disagreed. But she said the city decided to drop its case, which was scheduled to go to trial on Friday, and instead try to craft an agreement with Church of Hope.

One option would be to have the church apply for a special exemption to the rule.

If an agreement is not reached between the city and church, the city could file additional code violations against the church's current leaders or the owner of the strip mall, Dougall-Sides said.

She said prosecuting the case would have been impractical because Morrow, who lives in Palm Harbor, no longer pastors the church now that he is awaiting trial on three unrelated charges of committing sexual battery against teenage boys.