Playing a “shell game” with the city could cost the Church of Scientology more than $400,000.
The city’s code enforcement Board reduced a $451,500 fine for expired permits to $413,500 during its meeting Wednesday.
However, that was a large difference from the $45,250 an attorney for the Church offered.
Now, church officials said they are looking at their next options, which could include appealing the fine in circuit court.
Pat Harney, spokeswoman for the church, did not say what exactly the next step will be though. She did say the final touches to the interior are being completed on the seven story mecca building.
“I’ll leave that up to the legal guys,” she said. “Our argument is that we were in functional compliance in 2007,” Harney said.
The fines accrued when construction stopped on the “shell and core” of the church’s city-block sized Flag Building at 215 S Ft Harrison Ave in 2006.
Ed Armstrong, attorney representing the church, said the Church is willing to pay $45,250 for the fines accrued up to April 30, 2007.
At the time, Armstrong said that about $300,000 worth of landscaping and sidewalks were installed and the chain link fence surrounding the building was removed, and by doing so it made the building “functionally compliant.”
The final inspection and certificate of occupancy was issued in June.
And although quarterly notices of the $250-a-day fines were sent to church officials and members working on other construction projects met “almost daily” with city building officials for years, no one ever appealed.
“I don’t believe a good faith effort was made,” board member Donald Van Weezel said. “I don’t believe functional compliance is compliance. So I don’t feel that criteria was satisfied.”
A conditional certificate could have been sought before then though, said Kevin Garriott, a Clearwater building official. That would have been enough to comply with the code enforcement ruling, he said.
The seven-story building took about 12 years to be built. And now the final interior touches are being completed, Harney said.
“This is our cathedral,” Harney said. “It’s not just some simple process of building an office.”
Reasons for reducing fines include the property owner comes into complianceor or is in extreme hardship.
“Apparently (the fine) wasn’t taken seriously,” board member Sheila Cole said. “This board’s order wasn’t taken seriously and that really bothers me right now.”
The church could appeal the fine at the circuit court level. The case might be based on some statistics attorneys brought during the meeting.
They found 1,870 cases where permits and work order expired, but only the Church was cited.
"The Flag building is the only case we've found that the owner was sent to the code enforcement board for this issue,” said Cindy Terapani, who works as a building consultant in New Port Richey. “It's highly unusual in the 11 and a half years of data we evaluated and the only case that had that particular situatuon where an expired permit was the basis to go to code enforcement."
Board member Duane Schultz said they should be looking at reducing the fine, not at numbers of previous cases.
“All these other cases aren’t relevant for what we are here to do,” Schultz said. “We should base our decision on this case. The city brings us these cases we don’t go out looking.”
Assistant city attorney Camilo Soto said the difference is that no other building in Clearwater is the size of a city block and has taken nearly 15 years to construct.
“What we have is a self inflicted shell game,” Soto said. “We literally have a shell of a building that has been wrapped up into bigger and bigger building permits.”
Soto said the city would reduce the fine because of a five-month period in 2006 when it would have been impossible to reactivate the work permits.
Soto said the Church also chose to work on eight other projects including renovating the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Oak Cove condominiums and the Sand Castle resort.
“I believe there were various other projects to focus on other than this large, expansive, one-block building essentially since October 1998,” Soto said. “A large part of this was self inflicted by the property owner."
Code Enforcement Timeline:
- October 1998: Church of Scientology makes plans for property at 215 S Ft. Harrison
- March 28, 2000: Permit 1 issued for construction of seven story shell/core building
- Nov. 21, 2004: Permit 1 expires; “The church stopped construction for internal planing purposes and to change general contractors,” is written on page three of a brief to the city.
- 2006: Notice of violation issued for expired permit 1
- March 22, 2006: Code Enforcement Board orders Church to activate required permits within 90 days (June 25, 2006) and to complete work and obtain inspections within 180 days (Sept. 23).
- April 26, 2006: Because the church’s first certified site plan expired in 2004, they file a Flexible Standard Application
- Aug. 31, 2006: Development Review Committee reviews application.
- Oct. 2, 2006: Development order is issued for Flag site
- Oct. 6, 2006: New permit application for shell/core completion and completion of permit 1 which includes curbs, sidewalks, sod and stairwell doors.
- Jan. 17, 2007: Permit 2 is issued.
- Oct. 21, 2007: Permit 2 expires but is extended five more times; Oct. 26, 2007; Dec. 12, 2007; Jan. 24, 2008; Aug. 18, 2008; and Oct. 17, 2008.
- 2008: Application for Permit 3 to complete interior including air conditioning, exterior landscaping and hardscaping
- Sept. 17, 2009: Permit 2 is closed because the work is subsumed by Permit 3
- June 1, 2009: Permit 3 is issued
- June 6: Certificate of Occupancy is issued