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Church of Scientology removes controversial wrap from massive tent

Published Nov. 20, 2013

CLEARWATER — After the Church of Scientology removed a wrap from a massive tent Tuesday, it's up to Clearwater's code enforcement board to decide if the church should pay a fine for violating the city's sign laws.

Mayor George Cretekos said that the board's decision at its meeting today will receive a lot of scrutiny from the community.

"All eyes will be on that board and what decision it reaches," Cretekos said. "We'll take it one step at a time."

Meanwhile, city officials said the church has indicated that different wraps will be placed over the tent for upcoming Scientology events.

"We expected to see signage come and go," said City Manager Bill Horne.

An international gathering of Scientologists is tentatively scheduled for the weekend after Thanksgiving, and a New Year's Eve celebration is also anticipated.

The church has a permit to keep the three-story tent, imported from England, until mid January.

Crews quickly removed the wrap from the 150,000-square-foot tent that has run afoul of city sign codes since it went up in late October.

The city had planned to ask for a $250 daily fine for the violation, but Horne said he didn't know how the church's actions Tuesday would affect what happens at the code board meeting.

"There has been a violation. Period," Horne said. But fixing a violation, he said, "is certainly the ultimate goal."

Clearwater's code board will determine if a violation took place and then decide on a fine, Horne said, adding that the board could decide only to seek reimbursement for the city's administrative costs.

Duane Schultz, the board's chairman, said the board often follows the city's recommendation for a violation, but it has the independent authority to decide whether to levy a fine.

If a violation has been remedied by the time it reaches his board, Schultz said, they will often "slap their hands and say don't do it again," but it depends on the circumstance.

Schultz said he shared Cretekos' opinion on the church's behavior in regards to city laws.

"I wish they would be more team players instead of butting heads with the city all the time," Schultz said.

The huge lettering on the multi-hued tent wrap, including an acronym for "Keeping Scientology Working" and "The Golden Age of Tech" was too large for a structure its size, city officials have said.

The city anticipates that the church will argue that the lettering is artwork, not a sign, Cretekos said.

The tent was used this past weekend for the dedication of the Flag Building, which drew Hollywood icons Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kelly Preston. The church has said it plans to use it for other church events through the end of the month.

Church representatives didn't respond to a request for comment.

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

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