CLEARWATER — Assistant City Attorney Michael Fuino told City Council members on Monday they have few legal options to penalize landlords who keep downtown properties vacant as long as they are up to code and safe. What City Council members can do is start asking more questions.
The Council agreed to create a registry that will require property owners to report vacancies to the city and pay an administrative fee to cover the costs of tracking the real estate. Fuino said the registration could include questions asking why the properties are vacant and what the owners hope to do with them, although they can’t be required to answer truthfully or at all.
“We have a lot of properties being bought up and just being sat on,” council member David Allbritton said. “I like the idea of asking questions."
The creation of the registry, which the council did while acting as the community redevelopment agency, is the first action the city has taken to directly address the growing number of vacant properties downtown, a pattern the Tampa Bay Times reported last year.
Between 2017 and 2019 companies controlled by members tied to the Church of Scientology bought about 100 retail properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront.
The buyers spent more than $100 million, almost all in cash, and in many instances paid between two and six times the appraised values. But today more than half of those 100 storefronts and lots remain empty, most on prime stretches of the business district where the city hopes to bring a revival in restaurants, shops and entertainment.
Since 2017, at least 15 businesses that got new landlords tied to Scientology moved out and were never replaced.
About a third of the 40 downtown retail properties that individuals and companies tied to Scientology have owned since before the wave of 2017 purchases also sit vacant.
All properties owned by companies and individuals remain on the tax rolls. Of the 60 properties Scientology owns under its name in Pinellas County, most of which are downtown, 73 percent are tax-exempt for religious purposes.
In the area directly bordering the downtown waterfront, with Drew street to the north, Myrtle Avenue to the east and Court Street to the south, there are about 20 properties that are not owned by a government entity, the Church of Scientology, a Scientology parishioner or a company controlled by parishioners. Within those are about 10 empty storefronts.
The recent purchases and persistent vacancies surround the footprint of the city’s $64 million plan to redevelop the downtown waterfront into a vibrant park surrounded by housing, restaurants and shops. They also surround Scientology’s nearby international spiritual headquarters.
The council’s discussion avoided much talk of Scientology directly. Fuino, the assistant city attorney, stressed the city cannot legally regulate the amount of property owned by any one individual or organization.
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The city does have the authority to regulate properties that are abandoned, dangerous or that have violations like broken windows or unsafe conditions through code enforcement, Fuino said.
“We have a unique issue where it’s vacant but maintained,” Fuino said.
Cities across the country, including West Palm Beach, have utilized vacant property registries to at least track empty real estate. The registration can sometimes be used to ask questions like why the property is vacant in the first place, Fuino said. And the registration fee acts as an administrative cost, rather than a fine.
“The problem becomes if you just want to fine someone simply because they have a vacant property,” Fuino said. “I have not been able to find any authority that says you can do that and I would not want to be on the losing end of that argument in court.”
Staff must now draft terms of the proposed registry that will then come back to the city council for approval.
Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member Hoyt Hamilton expressed concern over creating more bureaucracy that won’t solve the long-term problem.
The city has attempted to take a more proactive approach by hosting events, marketing available city-owned properties and educating property owners about tax incentives, community redevelopment agency director Amanda Thompson said.
But these efforts have so far not brought the revival the city is hoping for.
“Whatever we’ve tried in the past, there’s been a lot of inactivity especially in our downtown, so I think it’s time to try something different,” council member Kathleen Beckman said.