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Church, city seek trade of land

Clearwater wants to swap Chesapeake Park for Calvary Baptist Church land near the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 1999


CLEARWATER -- Calvary Baptist Church and the city want to make a trade. But before they can swap some property, they'll have to revoke a law.

Calvary Baptist would like to own the city's 4.5-acre Chesapeake Park, just south of 12 acres that the church has a contract to buy at the southwest corner of Drew Street and McMullen-Booth Road.

Calvary Baptist could then decide to move to the 16.5-acre site, building a larger church on the east side of town. That could free up its current property on the city's waterfront bluff to be used as part of a festival marketplace, the subject of five proposals the city received last week.

City officials would like to own about 5 acres that the church possesses on the north side of Drew Street. The land is close to the city's popular Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex, although Eisenhower Elementary School separates them.

Calvary may even finance the construction of two new ball fields on the 5 acres, to make up for the loss of one city softball field at Chesapeake, according to the city. Chesapeake is also home to a small playground.

"I think we've worked out a deal that is win-win," said City Manager Mike Roberto. "We're getting more land than we're giving up."

Eddie C. Moore is the county's most popular softball complex, said Terry Schmidt, the city's special events manager and the local commissioner for the national Amateur Softball Association.

The softball facility hosts hundreds of teams in area leagues every year and also welcomes top college tournaments and major national amateur tournaments, Schmidt said. It is being expanded from four fields to seven.

"We could still use another field," Schmidt said. "And it would probably be better not to have to cross Drew Street" to walk to Chesapeake from Eddie C. Moore.

The Rev. Bill Anderson, the pastor of Calvary, said he knows the trade will require jumping over some hurdles, but "we're very hopeful at working something out with the city."

"No promises have been made, no commitments," Anderson said, "but we're just very interested in doing what we need to within the parameters of ordinances to obtain that property."

But before such a symbiotic deal could happen, a city ordinance must be repealed. The city's code currently prohibits Clearwater from giving any of its property to a non-profit group or church, such as Calvary Baptist, which would keep the land off the tax rolls -- even in a trade for other property.

The law also requires reverter clauses to be put into any deeds for land the city sells to anyone else. If the new owners were to opt someday to sell the land to a non-profit organization, the ownership automatically would revert to the city.

The ordinance was passed in 1994, after several commissioners had voiced concerns about limiting the land the Church of Scientology could own downtown. That year, the Pinellas County property appraiser had decided to exempt $19-million in Scientology-owned land from taxes, in order to settle lawsuits.

The repeal of the ordinance, which would clear the way for more serious negotiations to begin with Calvary Baptist, will be considered by the City Commission next Thursday.

The repeal would also benefit the Clearwater Country Club, which would like to give 1 acre of its property on the ninth hole's fairway to the city in exchange for an acre of city land on which the club wants to build a portion of its new clubhouse.

Both issues would still have to go to referendum for voter approval, which is required under the city charter whenever the city sells or gives away land used for recreational facilities or parks.

Roberto said he would like to see the land-swap questions put before voters in March, when a referendum is being planned for voters to decide on pension plan changes. City Attorney Pam Akin said she wasn't sure the city could put the deals together in time for that ballot.

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