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Legal glitch delays Clearwater vote on property Church of Scientology covets

Clearwater and the Church of Scientology both want the Clearwater Marine Aquarium-owned lot across from City Hall.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Clearwater and the Church of Scientology both want the Clearwater Marine Aquarium-owned lot across from City Hall.

CLEARWATER — The City Council's vote scheduled for Thursday on whether to buy a 1.4-acre downtown lot coveted by the Church of Scientology has been delayed a month because it wasn't properly advertised.

In June, someone submitted a public records request asking for two appraisals the city ordered on the Clearwater Marine Aquarium-owned property on the corner of Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue across the street from City Hall.

The city declined to release the records, citing an exemption in state law allowing municipalities to keep appraisals of property they're pursuing secret until a contract is considered by the council.

The law requires 30 days public notice of the City Council's discussion of the purchase if the exemption is used, but City Attorney Pam Akin said she didn't realize the requirement until Friday.

Akin acknowledged that it was "an accidental oversight" and said the purchase discussion will be added to council's April 20 agenda.

The timing is critical because Scientology leader David Miscavige scheduled private meetings with each City Council member for today in advance of the vote. The delay gives the church 30 extra days to lobby city and aquarium officials about the property that Miscavige has told City Manager Bill Horne is crucial to Scientology's interests.

Aquarium CEO David Yates said the delay does not affect the nonprofit's commitment in selling to the city.

"We're not looking at any other offer from anybody else, no matter who it is," Yates said.

Consultants who designed the city's 10-year, $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan included the aquarium lot as property the city should ensure meets "the community's vision and productively contribute to downtown."

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church wants the land, adjacent to the church's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat and across the street from its Fort Harrison Hotel, "to provide additional accommodations for our parishioners."

Scientology offered the aquarium $4.25 million in 2015, but Yates said his board was giving the city time to decide on buying the property.

Along with discussing the lot today, Miscavige will brief elected officials on the church's master retail plan first reported by the Tampa Bay Times last week.

The plan, which does not need approval from the public, requires all downtown property being bought by the church, its parishioners or others willing to participate.

The concept involves recruiting major national retailers to anchor the district and filling the grid with handpicked businesses, similar to how an outdoor mall is established.

Mayor George Cretekos said he doesn't see the delayed vote complicating the city's consideration of purchasing the aquarium property.

"I certainly don't want us to do something that then comes back and haunts us if we were to vote on it and then find we did something wrong," Cretekos said. "I'd rather postpone it 30 days and do it right."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

Legal glitch delays Clearwater vote on property Church of Scientology covets 03/13/17 [Last modified: Monday, March 13, 2017 9:51pm]
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