CLEARWATER - The Church of Scientology's incomplete Flag Service Organization Building downtown was the subject of a code enforcement case brought by the City to the Municipal Code Enforcement Board (MCEB) last week.
At issue was the expiration of building permits and the site plan approval for the facility hailed as the future "mecca of our religion in this city" by Church leader David Miscavage at its groundbreaking ceremony in 1998.
Among other features, the Flag Building was to have 40,000 of its 370,000 square feet devoted to the training of Scientology "auditors", but not only are those training rooms unfinished, the exterior shell of the building remains incomplete and has been surrounded by chain link fencing and construction debris as well.
Kevin Garriott, the City's Building Official, explained that the shell permit for the building located at 215 South Fort Harrison Avenue, issued by the City in 2000, expired on November 20, 2004. He said that the City is seeking the reactivation of the permit, and a completion of the building's exterior.
Garriott recommended a 90-day period to activate the permits, 180 days to complete the construction of the building shell. He explained that the facility's site plan has also expired, and may need to be resubmitted and perhaps heard by the City's Community Development Board.
Scientology's representative Uli Huber apologized for not having the building site cleaned up, and explained that a redesign of the building's interior caused the delay in completing the exterior.
Huber also said that work is underway to clean up the exterior and install landscaping. Jeff Kronschnabl, Clearwater's Director of Development and Neighborhood Services, explained that the City has been trying to get the site improved with plantings and sod as an interim measure before completion of the exterior construction; "It was in really bad shape," he said. The result of the cleanup effort was evident late last week.
Huber asked the board for some latitude in completing the exterior. A gaping hole in the building is needed to load construction materials for completion of the interior, he explained, and asked to exclude that opening from the exterior completion criteria. Kronschnabl indicated the City's willingness to accommodate the opening as long as permits were obtained for completion of the interior and progress continued on the exterior.
The Board unanimously accepted Garriott's recommendations, giving Scientology 90 days to reactivate the permits and 180 days to complete the exterior. A $250 per day fine will be imposed if those dates are not met.
The expired site plan could be a more difficult issue to resolve than the expired permits. According to Gina Clayton, Clearwater's Assistant Planning Director, Scientology could apply for a vested rights determination for the expired site plan, or resubmit the site plan and go through the development review process. Public hearings would be required in either case, with the City Council making the vested rights determination or the Community Development Board deciding the site plan approval.
Should Scientology opt to resubmit the site plan to the development review process, it would be evaluated under the terms of the Downtown Design Guidelines that were enacted after the original site plan was approved.
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