Clearwater fines Scientology $413,500

The St. Petersburg Times/August 25, 2011

Clearwater -- An obscure board of volunteers dealt the Church of Scientology an expensive blow on Wednesday, rejecting a bid to cut more than $400,000 in fines off the long-delayed Flag Building, the church's biggest center in the world.

Since 2006, the city of Clearwater has levied a $250-a-day fine on the church for letting its seven-story building, which fills a downtown block, crumble into disrepair during 12 years of construction.

When the building was finally finished in June, that $450,000 bill became due. But the church asked the city to reduce its fine by 90 percent, to reflect its "good faith" effort in bringing the building to code.

That request went to the city's resident-led Code Enforcement Board, which has a record of leniency and decimating fines. But board members voted unanimously to keep the fines mostly untouched, saying the church had long ignored the city's rules.

"This board's order was not taken seriously," member Sheila Cole said. "That really bothers me."

Officials suggested the church's total fine dip to $413,500, to account for months when plans were paused by city review. The church can appeal within 30 days to circuit court. Spokeswoman Pat Harney said the church would "consider its options."

Construction on Scientology's so-called Flag Mecca, which the church calls the "most important religious training and counseling center in the Scientology world," was plagued with stops and starts since the church's first plan for the building was approved in 1998.

In 2006, city officials complained the neglected project was littered with debris, overgrown with weeds and ringed by chain-link fencing. Attorney Ed Armstrong, who represents the church, began Wednesday's board meeting with an apology for the building's decay.

But he said changes in the city's building codes and the complexity of the church's unique plans made delays inevitable. The church, he added, spent more than $300,000 shortly after the fines began on sidewalks and landscaping to clean up debris, on top of the tens of millions of dollars to finish the building's construction.

The board's rules state it can lower fines if a project comes into compliance or if payment would bear an "extreme or undue hardship." Over the last two years, the board has almost always voted to reduce, meaning code violators — mostly people with shabby lawns or decaying houses — end up paying only about $1,000 in administrative costs.

With that pattern in place, representatives argued the church should be treated no differently. Not reducing the fines, Armstrong argued, would "unfairly penalize" the church and "serve no public purpose."

But assistant city attorney Camilo Soto argued the church should remain responsible for the fines after creating a "self-inflicted shell game" that led to delays.

Soto said the church's work on other downtown projects, including the 13-story Oak Cove and the 11-story Fort Harrison Hotel, showed the church thought fixing the eyesore was a low priority. "It could have been done," Soto said, "but they chose not to."

The Flag Building will offer a highly secretive program that Scientologists say increases perception and enhances spiritual abilities. One Scientologist who completed the training in Los Angeles, Matt Feshbach, told the Times in 2006 he could sense danger quicker and could appreciate beauty more deeply.

Nicknamed the "Super Power" building, the Clearwater site will host the only such program in the world. Church representatives would not say how much the program costs.

The building also will host counseling in more than 300 rooms across its top six floors. The ground floor will hold a grand lobby and chapel.

Harney said the church would focus its attention now on Scientologists coming to visit the building. A ribbon cutting is planned for later this year.

"This is our cathedral," Harney said. "It's not just a simple project. This is a church. Our church."

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