MANATEE -- For the Manatee County faithful, investments in buildings and land total more than a quarter-billion dollars to worship in their own churches.
As places of prayer, space for community meetings and room for food pantries and other social services, churches occupy a considerable amount of Manatee County space.
Some say churches add value to surrounding neighborhoods, increasing property values and bringing stability to new subdivisions.
In all, about 65 denominations operate more than 230 houses of worship in the county, according to the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.
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Church property is valued at more than $297 million, or about 39 percent of all tax-exempt properties in the county, which includes about $3.4 million in property designated by the Manatee County Appraiser's Office as church residences.
Nearly every piece of church property listed on the tax rolls is owned by denominations of the Christian faith. The list also includes a few private homes and even office space next to the Braden River.
Taken together, this property represents about 0.8 percent of the $34 billion of real property in Manatee County, according to the 2014 property tax roll. County property statistics show church grounds occupy about 1,080 acres throughout the county. Vacant properties, including some parking lots and open land dedicated to church use, span another 162 acres.
None of these properties contributes to the tax base, as guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the First Amendment. Property used for institutional, religious, educational, scientific and literary use are exempt from property taxes.
Real estate experts say church properties add to the overall value of the county market. One community in particular, Lakewood Ranch in East Manatee, actively promotes itself as a location for new churches.
"Churches and schools are integral to the foundation of the community," said Jimmy Stewart, vice president of sales for Lakewood Ranch master developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. "They create the center of community."
The big players
The biggest church property holder in Manatee County is the Catholic Diocese of Venice. According to county records, the diocese owns $40.2 million in exempt and taxed real estate. Among its
28 properties and nine Manatee churches, St. Mary of the Star Sea Church, a 12-acre waterside church on Longboat Key, is valued the highest at $5 million.
The church also owns six parcels designated for agricultural use, including 63 acres purchased from SMR last year for about $55,000 an acre.
Officials with the diocese office of communications said the church does not buy land for the purpose of investment, but rather as "sites for places of worship and pastoral activities."
Other congregations have also acquired millions of dollars in real estate. The Christian Retreat Family Church and Retreat Center off Upper Manatee River Road in East Manatee is listed in county records as the most valuable church property in the county with an assessed value of more than $12.5 million.
Bayside Community Church, which opened its new $16.5 million, 62,000-square-foot megachurch in East Manatee in January, may take over the top spot soon. Its property value has not been adjusted in county tax data since the building opened, and its 45-acre campus was valued at more than $6.3 million without the building.
Rounding out the top five most valuable church properties in the county: Harvest United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church of Palmetto and the First Baptist Church of Bradenton -- all with properties valued at more than $6 million.
Church leaders say their institutions add value to communities beyond the services extended to members. The Rev. Robert Sichta, pastor of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Bradenton, said members see it as their duty to use their 21,000-square-foot church to help neighbors, including those who may not attend the church.
The church hosts the Kids Club early learning and vacation preschool at its campus, operates a nondenominational food distribution operation and is home to a creative arts academy. A lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning youth group is also building a program at the church campus at 3700 26th St. W., Bradenton.
"These are all things people could not do because they couldn't get a space they could afford to use," Sichta said.
Catholic churches also open to those outside the faith. Services and programs include a food pantry at the St. Joseph Parish in Bradenton, open gyms and recreational programs, housing for the elderly, counseling programs and space for events such as blood drives.
"All this takes land for the necessary corresponding activities," the diocese stated in a letter to the Bradenton Herald.
Churches can even increase values for surrounding property. A 2013 University of Hamburg study focused on Germany indicated a church could increase nearby home values by about 4.8 percent.
Diocese officials said any bumps in property value associated with churches is a "natural consequence" of developing their properties.
In Lakewood Ranch, several churches clustered along Lorraine Road are being used to enhance the community image. SMR's Stewart said people moving to the community want to attend worship services near where they live. Selling land for the construction of churches helps meet that desire.
"People like to have choice," he said. "We want to offer diversity in our products."
-- Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, contributed to this report.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.