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Scientology accused of more Clearwater code violations

The fence bordering Court Street and the small tent next to the large one were erected on Scientology property without the required permits from Clearwater officials.
Published Nov. 8, 2013

CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology has run afoul of city ordinances again, prompting city officials to say that if the church doesn't begin complying with city laws, it won't get permits for a major event this month and an annual New Year's celebration.

The church has installed a white privacy fence on the western and southern boundaries of the property where it erected a massive tent for events, effectively blocking the view of the tent property from beachbound traffic on Court Street. The church did not obtain a required permit before putting up the fence.

Last week, the church started work on a 21,000-square-foot tent without first obtaining a tent permit required under city code. The new tent is adjacent to the 150,000-square-foot main event tent.

In addition, flood lights the church has placed on the big tent are disturbing residents of a nearby high-rise tower for seniors, potentially violating city light-intrusion rules.

The latest problems follow a $2,000 fine the city charged the church for cutting down two trees on the tent site without permission, and a violation of the city sign code because of a colorful wrap workers draped over the main tent that contains an acronym for "Keeping Scientology Working" and the words "The Golden Age of Tech."

"They are making things happen that have to be permitted. Stop doing that; stop doing things without permits," City Manager Bill Horne said.

Horne said an international gathering of Scientologists planned for the weekend after Thanksgiving as well as an anticipated New Year's Eve event won't be issued special event permits if the church doesn't change its behavior.

Church officials Peter Mansell and Sarah Heller met with Horne on Wednesday. At that meeting, Mansell and Heller said they didn't like how the church was being portrayed, according to Horne.

"They don't like they're being characterized as completely disregarding or not caring about the city's rules and regulations," Horne said. "But I emphasized to Peter, I said, 'Peter, the reality is we are all evaluated by what we do, not what we say we do. All these are actions that indicate to people that you're not willing to follow our rules.' "

Heller, "the authorized person in charge" of the church's events, according to a city document, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

The city has received dozens of calls and emails from residents upset with the church and a smaller number supporting the church, said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

The city notified the church this week that the new tent violates city code by not having a permit. It won't get one until the city signs off on the church's special event permit for its dedication of its new Flag Building on Nov. 17, said Michael Delk, the city's planning director.

In 2011, the church paid a $435,000 fine for construction delays on the Flag Building.

Horne said the church has been a presence in the community for many years and has improved downtown properties.

But, he said, "We think they can be better partners in consulting with us and complying with our rules. That's where they need to improve."

According to Horne, Mansell and Heller said out-of-town crews working on preparations for the upcoming events were unfamiliar with Clearwater ordinances.

Moving forward, Horne said, the church's actions will determine if they receive city approvals.

The first test will be if the church complies with city conditions to get a special event permit for the Flag Building dedication Nov. 17. The city plans to deliver those conditions to the church today.

With just over a week to go, Horne said the church needs to respond "as soon as possible."

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

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