In Clearwater, there is no clear way of addressing Scientology-related land purchases

As Church of Scientology companies continue to buy and hold downtown real estate vacant, Councilor Mark Bunker suggested on Monday that city officials try “to understand what the hell is going on”.

the Tampa Bay times reported earlier this month that limited liability companies administered or operated by Scientology members have purchased 45 parcels in the North Marina Area, which borders downtown, since July 2019. The companies paid $ 11.8 million in cash but did little to the mostly vacant land and buildings.

The pattern reflects what happened downtown between 2017 and 2019 when community-managed businesses bought 100 properties and have since left about half of them empty.

Both purchases come as the city spends millions on Imagine Clearwater, a major downtown waterfront redevelopment aimed at attracting investment and bringing life to the area.

According to Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw, the church itself was not involved in the takeovers.

During the council’s working session on Monday, Bunker suggested that the purchases conform to “Scientology behavior,” and that the city ask the prosecutor or the federal government to convene a grand jury for possible coordination by Scientology leader David to investigate Wrong.

“I think we shouldn’t think of this as ‘Oh, there’s a church around here,'” Bunker said. “A lot of people think (it) is organized crime and I don’t think that’s too far.”

Accusations of criminal activity, from human rights abuses to financial fraud, have been circulating in Scientology since the church arrived in Clearwater under a false name in 1975 and was held in federal prison on state espionage charges.

Bunker’s colleagues said Monday that the same dynamic is happening in property purchases and that the city is left with little clue to act on.

Councilor David Allbritton acknowledged his concern about Scientology-related purchases while saying that “buying property is not illegal” and that “there is nothing we can do about it”.

“I realize that a lot of people have overpaid for real estate and bought it and they sit on it and do nothing because that’s what they’re supposed to do, I know,” Allbritton said. “Because nobody buys a property, pays too much for it and doesn’t get any kind of return on it.”

Allbritton also said it would be “so ridiculous” to ask the FBI to investigate the property purchases because “you can’t investigate unless you have a reason”.

“I mean, you might not like the Catholic Church, let’s go after them, they own a lot of property,” Allbritton continued.

Bunker made comparisons between the pattern of downtown property purchases and events in Scientology history.

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He noted how the IRS granted Scientology tax exemption status in 1993 after Miscavige met with the agency’s then-commissioner. The church and parishioners then dropped more than 50 lawsuits they filed against the IRS and its agents.

Bunker also noted that after the Cult Awareness Network went bankrupt in 1996, some of its assets were purchased by groups represented by Steven Hayes, an attorney and member of Scientology. The hotline, which was set up to advise families with loved ones in mind control groups, was then taken over and renamed by members of Scientology.

Hayes is one of two parishioners who manage or operate the businesses that have purchased the 45 properties in North Marina since 2019.

“There’s a pattern here,” Bunker said.

In response to a request for comment on Monday’s discussion, Shaw, the Scientology spokesman, said in a statement that Bunker “is unsuitable for public office because of its continued nuisance.” He also referred to a permanent restraining order that prevents bunkers from being within ten feet of any Scientology member.

The injunction also applies to church members who come into contact with the bunker. It was issued in 2001 by a Pinellas County judge after months of chaotic downtown protests between Scientology members and the Lisa McPherson Trust, a nonprofit who died in memory of a woman in Scientology care. Bunker worked as the group’s filmmaker.

“The Church has always been willing to work with the city in the spirit of the Urban Land Institute’s recommendation for a city-church partnership,” Shaw said, referring to a 2004 counselor report of Partnership for Revitalization downtown was required.

City Prosecutor David Margolis said that whether or not illegal activity is taking place, the city could take one of three approaches: working with church officials, effectively ignoring them, or “embarking on some sort of conflict path, be it one path with law enforcement or” with others Way.”

“Which of these three philosophies should be pursued is really a decision of the council,” said Margolis, adding that discussions about this can take place in the council members’ weekly meetings with him and city manager Jon Jennings.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said he was concerned about property purchases and had tried to think strategically about how the downtown area could be made better.

“I don’t find the behavior rational,” Hibbard said of the purchases. “So if at some point no rational behavior breaks out, that will be a problem.”

One strategy mentioned by Hibbard is the potential for land swaps with the Church. The city owns several downtown Scientology properties that are “not as strategic” to Clearwater as church-owned or community-owned corporations.

“I think we can look at different things, both carrots and chopsticks,” he said.

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