Advertisement
  1. News

Church of Scientology fined for felling healthy trees on event site

Published Aug. 28, 2013

CLEARWATER — The city said no, but the Church of Scientology did it anyway, cutting down two healthy live oak trees this weekend near its downtown headquarters to make way for a massive tent being erected for an international gathering of Scientologists in November.

The removal of the approximately 20-foot-tall trees caught city officials and even the church's own contracted arborist by surprise on Monday.

"I was working on relocating those trees," said Rick Albee, a retired Clearwater arborist who now owns his own consulting company, Urban Forestry Solutions. "I didn't recommend it."

Neither did the city. In an Aug. 21 meeting, city planners explicitly stated that a "natural resource plan must be in place that ensures the survival of any trees impacted by this project."

"These two trees were fine. There was no reason for their removal," said Robert Tefft, the city's development review manager.

The city fined the church about $2,000 for the illegal tree cutting. The church paid the fine Monday.

"We have reimbursed the tree bank for the value of the trees, just like any other developer would do," Pat Harney, a church spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

Even though the trees were cut down illegally, the church's application for a special events permit to erect the tent — expected to hold the "vast majority" of the estimated 8,000 attendees for the International Association of Scientologists Anniversary Weekend — won't be adversely affected.

At least from the city Planning Department's perspective.

"At this point, there is no reason for us to say no," Tefft said.

City manager Bill Horne said the church knew what it was doing.

"They purposefully disregarded the guidance we'd given them. They knew it, they disregarded it," he said. "But let's put this in context. This is not uncommon for some property owners to do this."

Clearwater has a strict tree ordinance that requires property owners to get a city permit before cutting down trees above a certain size.

The Church of Scientology has moved trees rather than chopping them down in the past. In August 1998, the church used hydraulics and a wood and steel track to move a 65-foot-tall, 125-ton live oak from one spot to another on S Harrison Avenue. It was done to make way for construction of the church's Flag Building, scheduled to open in early October.

"As far as trees go, the Church has a record of preserving old trees and fostering new growth," Harney wrote. "The Church even made the Guinness Book of World Records for relocating and preserving the largest live oak tree, at that time — 'Sam' — which is still alive and well in the front of the new Flag Building."

Albee said he met with a tree relocation company on Friday that estimated the trees had an 80 percent chance of survival if they were moved.

As for the health of the two trees, Albee had rated one a 4 on a 0-to-6 scale (with 0 being dead) and the other a 3.

The trees were located in parking lot islands, with their roots surrounded by limestone and concrete, so their viability was limited, Albee said.

Horne said he has seen renderings of a church plan to build a concert hall on the vacant site, although no plans have been submitted. Perhaps that figured into the church's decision, he said.

"As reported in the St. Petersburg Times on November 21, 2011, everybody knows this is the future site of the L. Ron Hubbard Hall," Harney wrote.

In any event, church leaders should have planned better, Horne said. Rumors that the long-delayed Flag Building would open this year have been circulating for months, but the application for the grand opening event wasn't delivered to the city until Aug. 16.

"If they had planned this event months ago, there may have been a way to avoid this situation," Horne said.

On Sept. 3, city staff will give church representatives a checklist of required steps for the permits to be issued for the Flag Building's Oct. 6 grand opening and the November Association of Scientologists event.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis raises his hands after being asked about his relationship with two Ukrainian businessmen during an announcement at a Palm Harbor Walmart Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. DeSantis refused to answer questions about the two men. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
    During a news conference in Naples, DeSantis launched into a long-winded discussion of American history, which he said young people need to know better.
  2. The Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting ceremony June 18 for For Each 1 Reach 1. Cutting the ribbon is Lynette Mackey. For more information, call (352) 556-2768. This was taken in 2013 at her original location. [SUBMITTED PHOTO  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Rezoning also was approved for the county’s first Nissan dealership.
  3. Jarrod Haneline, shown when he was named principal of Jackson Elementary School in 2018, has left that position. [MARLENE SOKOL  |  Times staff]
    Jarrod Haneline left the position in recent weeks.
  4. 4 hours ago• Gradebook
    Alan Black, outgoing principal of Burney Elementary School, in an image on the school website. [HSPS  |  Handout]
    School leaders will trade jobs in the new year.
  5. No sign of graves was found during a survey using ground-penetrating radar at the Tax Collector's office on E Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. The survey was conducted based on a tip by a cemetery researcher. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    A tip from the man who pointed to the cemetery beneath King High School didn’t pan out this time.
  6. Tampa police have not identified the man caught on surveillance video peeping through the windows of Summer Sullivan and Anna Klettke's Ybor home. [Summer Sullivan]
    Denzel Crumbley was spotted walking into a dark alleyway near Summer Sullivan’s property, hiding behind a tree while holding onto a chain-link fence.
  7. Commissioner Pat Kemp so far is unopposed for re-election to her countywide seat in 2020. Commissioner Sandra Murman, term-limited in her district seat, is considering running against her. [Courtesy of Pat Kemp]
    The move appears to be in part a reaction to what some view as anti-growth leanings by the new Democratic majority on the Hillsborough County Commission.
  8. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman center, held a news conference at the Manhattan Casino on Tuesday where he announced a new vision for the 22nd Street S corridor called Deuces Rising. The plan includes building a new Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum at Commerce Park. CIty Council member Darden Rice, is to the mayor's left and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin is on the right. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    The proposal to build warehouses on Commerce Park along 22nd Avenue S fell apart. Now the city wants to move the African American museum there.
  9. Robert Matthews Beall III, who goes by Matt Beall, is Beall's, Inc.'s new CEO. His great grandfather founded the company in 1915. [Beall's]
    Beall takes over leadership from the chain’s first non-family CEO.
  10. Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan speaks at a news conference Tuesday about a revamped mental health crisis training program for officers and 911 dispatchers. “There is, in my opinion, a crisis going in our society and my concern is not enough people are concerned about it," Dugan said. [TONY MARRERO  |  Tony Marrero]
    All officers will receive 40 hours of training that includes sessions with experts and family members who can provide a personal perspective.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement