Church of Scientology fined for cutting down healthy trees at event site


CLEARWATER – The city said no, but the Church of Scientology did it anyway, cutting down two healthy live oaks this weekend near its downtown headquarters to make way for a massive tent erected for a international gathering of Scientologists in November.

The removal of trees about 20 feet tall took city officials and even the church’s contract arborist by surprise on Monday.

“I was working on moving these trees,” said Rick Albee, a retired arborist from Clearwater who now owns his own consulting firm, Urban Forestry Solutions. “I did not recommend it.”

The city either. In a meeting on August 21, planners explicitly stated that a “natural resource plan must be in place to ensure the survival of all trees affected by this project.”

“Those two trees were doing fine. There was no reason for their removal,” said Robert Tefft, director of the city’s development review.

The city fined the church approximately $ 2,000 for illegal logging. The church paid the fine on Monday.

“We reimbursed the tree bank for the value of the trees, just like any other developer would,” Church spokesman Pat Harney wrote in an email.

Even though the trees were illegally felled, the church’s request for a special event allows the tent to be erected – which should contain the “vast majority” of the estimated 8,000 attendees at the Association’s anniversary weekend. Scientology International – will not be affected. .

At least from the town planning department’s point of view.

“At this point there is no reason for us to say no,” Tefft said.

City manager Bill Horne said the church knew what it was doing.

“They deliberately ignored the advice we gave them. They knew it, they ignored it,” he said. “But let’s put this in context. It’s not uncommon for some owners to do this.”

Clearwater has a strict tree ordinance that requires landowners to obtain a municipal permit before cutting trees above a certain height.

The Church of Scientology has moved trees rather than cut them down in the past. In August 1998, the church used hydraulics and a timber and steel track to move a 65-foot-tall, 125-ton living oak tree from one location to another on S Harrison Avenue. This was done to make way for the construction of the Church’s Flag Building, which is scheduled to open in early October.

“When it comes to trees, the Church has a reputation for preserving old trees and fostering new growth,” Harney wrote. “The Church even made the Guinness Book of World Records for relocating and preserving the largest living oak tree at the time – ‘Sam’ – which is still alive and well in front of the new Flag Building.”

Albee said he met with a tree relocation company on Friday that estimated trees had an 80% chance of survival if moved.

As for the health of the two trees, Albee had rated one at 4 on a scale of 0 to 6 (0 being dead) and the other at 3.

The trees were located in parking islands, with their roots surrounded by limestone and concrete, so their viability was limited, Albee said.

Horne said he saw renderings of a church plan to build a concert hall at the vacant site, although no plan was submitted. Maybe it was in the church’s decision, he said.

“As stated in the St. Petersburg Hours on November 21, 2011, everyone knows this is the future site of L. Ron Hubbard Hall, ”Harney wrote.

In any event, church leaders should have planned better, Horne said. Rumors that the long-delayed Flag Building would open this year have been circulating for months, but demand for the grand opening event was not delivered to the city until August 16.

“If they had planned this event months ago, maybe there would have been a way to avoid this situation,” Horne said.

On September 3, city staff will give church officials a checklist of the steps required for permits to be issued for the Flag Building inauguration on October 6 and the November event of the Association of Scientologists.

Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago

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