City Balks At Church's Figures On House Plan

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: January 25, 1996

The Church of Scientology was hoping Wednesday to get approval for a plan that would move as many as nine people into individual units at its staff apartment complex and create common lounges for rest and relaxation.

Instead, city officials revealed that the numbers for the total population at Hacienda Gardens just don't add up.

"I don't know if they're incorrect or if we're incorrect," said Vic Chodora, assistant director of central permitting for the city. "But right now there's a disagreement."

The Scientologists hope to consolidate residents at Hacienda Gardens, at 551 N Saturn Ave., into fewer units and use the leftover space to create common rooms for rest and recreation, including exercise facilities and music rooms. Currently, five to eight people live in individual apartments.

Church officials went to the Board of Adjustment seeking a variance. City codes require that an apartment have at least 50 square feet per person if more than one person lives in a room. In addition, apartments must have 150 square feet of space for the first occupant and 100 more square feet for each additional resident.

The Scientologists first told the city that about 1,100 people live at Hacienda now and say the maximum capacity is about 1,340. They said the renovations, which would add one tenant to each remaining apartment, would not increase the capacity.

But city calculations based on a 1992 inspection estimated the capacity at just 1,180 tenants. The city also estimated the renovations could bring about 1,400 total residents to the complex, about 220 more than city planners think should be allowed to live there.

Hacienda residents are members of the Sea Organization, or "Sea Org," the core religious organization within the church. Sea Org members sign billion-year contracts to work for the church and are paid $50 a week, in addition to room and board and medical and dental costs. They can be seen walking around downtown wearing blue maritime uniforms.

City planners have recommended that the variance be granted, but only if the population never exceeds 1,180 and if the city can do random inspections.

In the past, city inspectors have discovered overcrowding at Hacienda Gardens. The 1992 inspection revealed that, by law, too many people were living in 34 apartments. Officials found as many as 10 beds in one apartment and discovered that many beds were in living rooms and dining rooms.

Neither side could explain Wednesday what caused the discrepancy, but both pledged to work together to figure it out. The board is scheduled to discuss the issue again Feb. 14.

Some Board of Adjustment members and several area residents who showed up at the meeting were not so sure about the changes.

"Once the variance is granted, what's to stop them from putting five people in a living room?" board member P.J. Shah asked. "You're increasing enforcement. I think you're opening a bag of worms to go monitor everywhere."

Bill Zinzow, who called himself a "concerned" Clearwater resident, said he thought the church should do the makeover but take the extra Hacienda tenants and put them in different places around town.

"I think it's criminal the way they're expecting these people to live," he said.

The church says residents of Hacienda Gardens have living standards different from the general public's and want the changes to make their lives better.

"It is one group," Scientology planner James Bond said. "Many of them work together. ... Most of these guys work or study 80 or 90 hours a week."