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Clearwater issues conditions Scientology must meet to hold its events

To gain an occupancy certificate for the huge tent across from the Flag Building in downtown Clearwater, Scientology must obtain permits for other illegally constructed tents and fences.
Published Nov. 9, 2013

CLEARWATER — The city gave the Church of Scientology a list of conditions Friday that the church must meet if it wants a permit to hold a high-profile Nov. 17 dedication of its downtown Flag Building.

One line in the sand: For the massive tent that will be a key part of the Flag Building festivities to get a certificate of occupancy, the church must obtain permits for illegally constructed tents and fences.

In recent days, the church has erected a 21,000-square-foot tent and a privacy fence along Court Street, a major route to Clearwater Beach, without permission.

The city also warned the church that if it violates the city's conditions and police must be used to "establish control," the church will be billed $50 per hour for each officer.

Off the table: the church's request to temporarily remove a traffic-signal mast arm on Fort Harrison Avenue next to the Flag Building for photographic and video purposes. The city said no.

Under construction since 1998, the $145 million, 377,000-square-foot Flag Building occupies an entire city block downtown and is referred to by some as Scientology's "cathedral." In 2011, the church paid $435,000 in fines to the city for construction delays on the building.

The city tentatively agreed to some of the church's requests, including:

• Taking down a pedestrian crossing signal pedestal for 24 hours with the church picking up the approximately $2,000 tab.

• Partial closures of Fort Harrison Avenue for most of the weekend of Nov. 15-17. City officials say closing the southbound lane of a portion of the major downtown thoroughfare from Friday evening until Sunday morning won't cause major traffic snags. The middle turn lane will carry southbound traffic.

• Fort Harrison Avenue, which runs north-south, will be closed near the church's facilities between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., one less hour than the church requested.

The city said the church could not use amplified sound at its festivities past 11 p.m.

Sarah Heller, the church's "authorized person in charge" of the event, according to a city document, didn't respond to a request for comment.

City officials said the church must meet the conditions as soon as possible.

Hanging in the balance are two major upcoming church events: an international gathering of Scientologists the weekend after Thanksgiving and an anticipated New Year's Eve celebration.

City Manager Bill Horne has been clear: If the church doesn't comply with all the conditions for the Flag Building dedication, the other two events won't receive city approval.

The city wants to work with the church and, in recent days, there have been signs of progress on the church's part, said Mayor George Cretekos.

"They are one of our largest taxpayers, but that doesn't mean they are entitled to special treatment," Cretekos said. "Hopefully, they will understand it is a two-way street."

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

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