CLEARWATER – Council members voted to indefinitely delay a land swap between the city of Clearwater and the Church of Scientology.
The decision comes just months after a contentious showdown with the church over the purchase of a downtown property, which the city now owns.
The tentative agreement called for the swapping of the vacant lot adjacent to the Nolen apartment complex, which the church is currently under contract to purchase, for three city-owned parcels on the northwest corner of South Garden Avenue and Court Street, Waterston Avenue and at 600 Franklin St. In that deal, the church would add 16 parking spaces around its future development of the L. Ron Hubbard Hall.
The swap would have – at least on paper – come out in favor of the city, as the Nolen property has an assessed value of $600,000.
“The Church has proceeded in good faith with the acquisition of the property,” church attorney Katie Cole told council members. “It entered into a contract in January after city staff identified this parcel as an opportunity that the city wanted to acquire.”
According to Cole, the church has already paid a nonrefundable deposit of $75,000 toward the $625,000 purchase price of the Nolen property in anticipation of the city’s agreement to the land swap.
However, some council members were reluctant to move forward with the deal during last week’s meeting June 13 at City Hall.
Vice-Mayor Hoyt Hamilton was the first to voice his concerns over the planned swap.
“As I’ve said to a few people in the last couple of days in conversations, this is one of the fun parts of being an elected official,” Hamilton said. “Because no matter what you do, you’re going to have someone not agree with what you do.”
Hamilton said at first glance, the deal would perhaps be very advantageous to the city, but did not feel the city was currently in the position to give up the property, and in particular the parking spaces it would be losing.
“I’m not saying I’m not willing to do the deal at some point,” Hamilton said. “I’m just not ready to do it today.”
Hamilton made a motion that the council table the item until an unspecified time in the future. Council approved the motion, with Councilman Bob Cundiff casting the lone dissenting vote.
The decision marks the second time in as many months that the city has thwarted the Church’s effort to expand its downtown footprint.
Council members voted in April to move forward with the $4.25 million purchase of a 1.4-acre parcel of land adjacent to City Hall, which now gives the city a contiguous tract of 2.1 acres of property along the north and south sides of Pierce Street between Osceola Avenue and the waterfront.
The unanimous decision effectively blocked the Church of Scientology’s bid for the coveted property, currently owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and cut short the Church’s hopes to develop the parcel into a swimming pool and playground area for guests of its adjacent hotel, The Oak Cove.