BRADENTON -- A special use application for religious assembly at the former Kiwanis Club of Bradenton at 2102 14th St. W. was shot down by a 3-2 vote on Wednesday by a divided Bradenton City Council, which engaged in a prolonged debate about the future redevelopment of the area.
"It's not ideal for redevelopment of 14th," said Ward 3 Councilman Patrick Roff. "I'd prefer a business, but my understanding from conversations with the city attorney is that under the Freedom of Religion Act, if we say no to a church when a public organization like the Kiwanis can come back in there, that we would be in violation of the law."
City Attorney Bill Lisch said it was a precarious situation since the building is
already zoned for assembly and the law doesn't necessarily distinguish between public assembly and religious assembly.
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Ward 4 Councilman Bemis Smith said he would feel more comfortable if there was a specific church before the council explaining their intentions. The building is owned by investor Vincent Crisci, who bought the 6,600-square-foot building in 2013 from the Kiwanis for $275,000. The building has sat vacant for two years.
Crisci said he has tried to market the building for a restaurant for two years without much luck.
"In over two years of marketing the space, excluding prospective tenants we did not care to rent to, such as an adult bookstore, the only other rental inquiries have all come from churches," he said. "There have been at least a dozen churches that have expressed interest, but most were new or being formed and would not qualify financially. But without a special permit, we could be certain we could not even accept one."
Planning and Community Development Director Tim Polk said Crisci was just looking for an expanded opportunity to temporarily lease a building that has been vacant for too long.
"It's just an option to have a tenant," said Polk. "If he wanted to have a restaurant move in at a later time, he still has the option to do that."
According to the Manatee County Property Appraiser website, Crisci pays about $6,000 a year in property taxes on an empty building.
The council also had concerns about parking. ZNS Engineering Planner Rachel Layton said the building can seat 324 people and as such, would require 52 parking spaces. By redesigning the existing parking lot, there would be 52 spaces. However, as part of the purchase, the owner gained rights to a 1997 agreement between Kiwanis and the adjacent Tropical Palms mobile home park that grants access to 100 additional spaces.
Roff said there have likely been close to 20 new board directors at Tropical Palms since that agreement was signed and they were not likely aware of it anymore. Roff asked Layton if there had been any contact with Tropical Palms and she said there had not.
While there are stipulations in the special use application that prohibits feeding, housing, clothing or allowing homeless to congregate on the property, Smith said without knowing what a tenant's intentions are, he remained uncomfortable in moving it forward.
Vice Mayor Gene Gallo asked how a church would affect two nearby businesses that sell alcohol. Lisch called it a "one-way" ordinance, meaning a new business couldn't open up within 300 feet of an existing church, but a new church is allowed to open within 300 feet of an existing business that sells alcohol.
Roff said it appeared the city would have an issue if a church was before the council asking for the special use application, "but since there is no church here, we have the right to turn it down based solely on the request."
Ward 2 Councilman Gene Brown and Ward 5 Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. appeared satisfied that the stipulations in the request were enough to address city concerns in their support of the application. Roff, Smith and Gallo voted against it.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.