Hillsborough rejects offer from Calvary Church

08/20/08 Seán Kinane
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In 1953, Hillsborough County deeded a piece of land on Fowler Avenue, just east of where USF now stands, to a church. According to the deed, ownership of the land would revert back to the county if it were ever to be used for something besides nonprofit religious purposes.

The church that owns the property wants to sell it to a developer and only give the county a portion of the purchase price, a proposal that was rejected by the County Commission today.

The property was purchased in 1969 by Calvary Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church. But Calvary is offering to pay the county $60,000 to be released from the requirement so that the land can be sold.

Three appraisers put the value of the release fee for reverter interest – how much money the church should pay the county for the unrestricted deed to the land - from $30,000 to $243,000 for non-religious uses, said Mike Kelly, director of Hillsborough County’s Real Estate Department. He recommended that the County Commission reject Cavalry’s offer.

The attorney representing Cavalry is David Smith, who was Tampa’s City Attorney until he resigned earlier this summer. Smith suggested that because of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion, the reverter provision would not stand up in court.

“This reverter is of dubious quality because … the cessation of religious activity constitutes a forfeiture. You’ve got establishment clause implications; it may be an invalid reverter. … It’s not going to be returned to the tax rolls if we don’t go through with the current contract, what will happen is it would be sold to another church instead. Because the yield that you’re offering is so low that it makes more sense to sell it to another church.”

But that did not sit well with Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who told Smith that his statement, quote, “complicates my dilemma.”

“If I understand what you’re saying, is that if we don’t go along with this and take our $60,000 for our taxpayers and go home, then the entity that you’re representing will pull back that contract and not make this available. That kind of just ruffles my feathers a little bit because it’s like we’re playing hardball and we can play just as hard as anybody else.”

Commissioner Brian Blair had an even stronger reaction. He said “no good deed goes unpunished.” Blair asked a question that was answered by his colleague Kevin White.

“How could a church, in the name of god, hold the county hostage?” Blair asked. White responded, “Because that dollar says ‘In God We Trust.’”

Susan Fernandez, the county’s Managing Attorney for Real Property and Development, assured the Commissioners that the clause causing the land to revert back to the county is legally strong.

Commissioner Jim Norman was concerned that if the County Commission rejected Cavalry’s offer, it could be worse than negotiating a compromise.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe feared that even if the county could get a better deal in this particular case, it would set a bad precedent.

The Commission voted 5-2 to reject Calvary’s offer to release the reverter interest and to instead request. Norman and White were the dissenting votes.

Smith, Calvary's attorney, told WMNF that he would go back to the county to get them to accept a fee payment for the reverter interest.

The next Hillsborough County Commission meeting will be Sept. 4 in the County Building in downtown Tampa.

Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

Location of the property at 5015 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa

text of the First Amendment

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