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ST. PETE BEACH — Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church, at 107 16th Ave., had its prayers answered when a judge ruled in January that it could use its parking lot to collect donations from anyone, including beachgoers looking for a parking spot.

The church and the city have now settled the case, with the city agreeing it will not use its land development code regulations to prevent the church from offering its parking lot to beachgoers.

The issue first came to light when a few residents living near the church complained that the house of worship was using its parking lot to collect donations, not only from parishioners, but also from those who wanted to park and walk to nearby Pass-a-Grille Beach. The commissioner from the district, Melinda Pletcher, brought up those complaints to staff during several commission meetings.

After the city initiated code enforcement action, the church filed a lawsuit against the city claiming its First Amendment religious rights were violated. The church filed its case in federal court to claim its rights as a religious institution under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act were violated. That act prohibits localities from using zoning regulations to restrict a religious institution’s property rights.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in January granted the church an injunction allowing the house of worship to use its off-street parking for religious purposes, including evangelism and communal prayer.

The city and the church ultimately decided to settle the issue.

City Attorney Andrew Dickman noted two weeks ago the city held an executive session where commissioners learned about a mediation effort that defense counsel had with the church. “The key point to this is that the status quo would be maintained with the church and what they are doing, collecting donations for parking in their spaces that are designated for parking,” he explained at a recent commission meeting.

“This does not give them in any way the ability to have any other rights to violate codes,” the attorney added. “So they are in the same position as everyone else is with regard to your land development code and your code of ordinances, except for the fact that they will have the ability to use their off-street parking spaces for folks that are going to go to the beach or go elsewhere.

“Off-street parking is generally dedicated for use that is on the premises,” the attorney explained, “but in this case they are going to be allowed to use their parking for collecting donations for their church; that doesn’t allow for using the right of way, blocking sidewalks, litter, noise, all of that. Anything that the rest of the community would be held accountable for, the church will be held accountable for.”

The judge also ruled the city would pay the church $15,000 in damages.

The court will determine attorney fees; however, Dickman told commissioners, damages imposed by the court as well as attorney fees would be paid by the city’s insurance carrier.

Commissioner Mark Grill asked whether the agreement would address future potential issues.

Dickman said city and church lawyers discussed ways to handle issues and initiating levels of dialog “before they get to a litigious point of view.”

He explained both parties will appoint a designee to contact if an issue arises, “so issues can be handled before it gets to code enforcement.” In addition, before any litigation is initiated, both parties agreed to participate in mediation and conflict resolution.

Pletcher suggested there may be some things that the city manager and the church can work out “and maybe make it a little bit more palatable for the affected property owners that weren’t aware of this intended use or possible use. It’s been a learning curve for all of us, and I think the most important thing is we do move on and we have a system in place for that to happen successfully,” she said.

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