Clearwater mayor irked as Scientology to buy more downtown land

St. Petersburg Times/May 21, 2011

Clearwater - Pinellas County is preparing to sell five buildings in downtown Clearwater to the Church of Scientology - much to the annoyance of Clearwater's mayor.

The buildings, on about 2 acres total, are vacant or little used. Most are between the County Courthouse and Scientology's complex of downtown buildings.

County commissioners are to vote on the deal Tuesday. Officials say the church was the only bidder.

For the cash-strapped county, it's a chance to unload five surplus properties for $6.7 million. For the church, it's an opportunity to add to Scientology's ever-expanding holdings in downtown Clearwater.

However, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said he's frustrated that the city wasn't notified. He said Clearwater might have been interested in acquiring a couple of the parcels.

"Obviously, we knew the county was trying to consolidate properties," Hibbard said. "We were not called to see if we were directly interested in any of the properties."

He added that selling the land to the church missed an opportunity to return it to the property tax rolls. The county-owned land hasn't been taxed for decades. But selling it to a business could have helped the tax base.

"You know, I'm just concerned about having more property off the tax rolls," Hibbard said.

County Administrator Bob LaSala said the sale of the land has followed county procedures. He didn't acknowledge any reluctance to deal with the controversial Scientologists.

"We got a fair price for the property," LaSala said. "We went through a bona fide process, an impartial process."

County Commissioner Neil Brickfield noted the church was the sole bidder. He also noted the land won't necessarily be tax-free, depending on its use.

"We put it out to bid. They bid. They won the bid. Their money's green and spends like everybody else's," Brickfield said.

Roughly two-thirds of Scientology's property in Clearwater is tax-exempt because it's used for religious purposes, but the church's hotels and restaurants are taxed.

Scientology officials didn't return phone calls Friday, so it's unknown what they intend to do with the property.

Two of the five buildings are offices for the county's Department of Environmental Management, which is being dismantled. The other three are vacant.

The Church of Scientology has been buying property in downtown Clearwater since it arrived in 1975. It now owns roughly 30 properties in Clearwater, which it considers its "spiritual mecca."

A version of this story appears in regional editions of the Times.

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