ST. PETE BEACH — A federal court has ordered the city to pay Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church more than $250,000 in attorney fees, which the church spent to defend its right to allow the public to park in its parking lot.

The church, at 107 16th Ave., filed suit against the city in August 2020 after the city barred the church from allowing the general public, largely beachgoers, to park in its lot. The city had also sought to restrict the church’s youth group from evangelizing, praying with and seeking donations from those who parked in their lot for free.

“This fee award is an example of the financial penalties local governments must pay when they violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects the church’s right to use its parking lot in accordance with its religious mission to show biblically-based hospitality,” said attorney Noel W. Sterett of the national religious land use firm Dalton & Tomich. 

Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church has owned its current location since 1957, and its 70-space parking lot is one block from the public beach. The church has always allowed people to use the parking lot for free when church is not in session in order to access the beach.

In 2016, the church began accepting donations from those parking in the lot, with the money collected used to fund the church’s youth mission trips. Church youth also distributed spiritual leaflets, prayed with people, and shared their faith with those interested in learning more. 

The city objected to how the church was using its parking lot and began issuing citations. In 2020, the city fined the church $1,000 for allowing general public parking in its lot, and the church faced a $500 fine every time it allowed an individual that was not there for “legitimate church purposes” to park in the lot. 

A court granted an injunction allowing the practice in 2021. The case later settled.

On April 27, Judge Tom Barber, a U.S. District Court judge for the Middle District of Florida, upheld a U.S. magistrate’s ruling that the church be awarded $254,019 in attorney’s fees and additional costs of $4,348.

“The city did not violate any laws while enforcing its local codes. In order to avoid additional litigation and disharmony, the city and the Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church made a pragmatic decision to resolve their differences and craft a settlement that gives the city, the church and the public clarity regarding the use of the church’s private parking areas," city attorney Andrew Dickman said in an email to Tampa Bay Newspapers.

"The settlement is a good example of several competing interests being resolved with open and honest dialog. The City of St. Pete Beach is blessed with world renowned beaches, but this geography comes with regulator and operational challenges. Balancing the city’s beach popularity with the rights of full-time city residents, houses of worship and businesses is complex.  The settlement between the city and the church is a fair balance of many interests.

"The parties agreed to let the court decide the attorney fee amount, now being widely publicized, which were paid to the church’s attorneys by the city’s insurance carrier," Dickman said. "The city and the church are working together under the terms of the settlement agreement.”