CLEARWATER — In recent months, city leaders’ frustrations about downtown property owners with no apparent plans for their vacant properties began to mount. So much so, that in September they wondered what legal options the city could take to force those owners to take action.
As it turns out, not much, a city attorney told City Council members during a Nov. 16 meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency.
But there is one legal option that council members would like to explore: Creating a registry of vacant properties and requiring owners to pay a registration fee.
Much of the frustration stems from the Church of Scientology and its parishioners who reportedly engaged in a quiet series of land purchases essentially doubling the church’s footprint downtown.
Many of those properties, however, mysteriously remain vacant, and council members have expressed concern about the effect they could have on the city’s attempt to revitalize the area.
“I have no understanding why you would have a building vacant, continue to pay taxes, (and) have to maintain the property,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said. “That is irrational behavior to me, at least in the world I live in. That’s a good way to create a small fortune from a large fortune.”
Assistant City Attorney Michael Fuino said the registry could help shed some light on those concerns.
“The registration can also answer some of the questions I think I’ve heard the council and the trustees say, which is why is the property vacant? What do you intend to do with it?” Fuino said. “There is nothing wrong with asking those questions in the form of a registration, but I think what the problem would become if you just want to fine someone simply because they have a vacant property.”
Instead the owners would pay a registration fee, which is the cost to cover the government service. Those fees could escalate the longer the property is vacant.
Going further than that, including attempts to limit the amount of property owned by any one organization, would be a difficult legal battle, he said.
He added that the owners aren’t compelled to answer the question of what plans they have for their property, or could just point to the financial crisis caused by the pandemic as to why they don’t have a tenant.
Vice Mayor David Allbritton said the city should still be asking the question.
“I’m not sure if that’s really going to result in anything, but I think that should be one of the things that we do instead of just saying, hey, we’ll just see how it works out economically,” he said.
Council member Kathleen Beckman added that a registry would prove valuable in helping make informed decisions about the future of downtown.
“We need to have an accurate picture to know what we’re dealing with, to set goals, to measure goals,” she said. “So, if we have 500 vacant properties in the city that are zoned for X, what is that number next year? What are we doing to move that needle?”
Hibbard said he wasn’t sure adding another layer of bureaucracy was the answer or would help accomplish the goal of reducing the number of vacant properties downtown.
“If we ... had a way to regulate people to getting their buildings occupied then I would be interested,” he said. “And I still believe that incentives and basic economics ultimately are going to be what wins out.”
Council member Hoyt Hamilton, who in September was outspoken in his criticism of the property owners, said the city still needs to be careful to respect their rights.
“I’m willing to listen and willing to try and find a way to nudge people in the right direction, but I’d be very, very hesitant to be too overly aggressive,” he said.
Council member Mark Bunker said he doesn’t think a registry would be too burdensome.
He also pointed out that some of the owners paid two or three times the market value of the properties, so their motives or those of the church might go beyond financial.
“I also think there are some people who own property downtown who literally don’t live in the world you do where buying buildings and sitting on them makes sense,” he said to Hibbard.
The mayor said at least they are paying the taxes on those properties.
“I don’t get it. Again, I think it’s irrational, but the fact that they are paying two, three times original market value, at least we are getting the revenues,” he said. “Now we need to figure out with the CRA how we want to utilize those revenues to benefit the rest of the city and get things occupied.”
The council instructed city staff to come back with a structure of how the registry would work, how much it would cost, and how much staff time would be required to maintain it.