VIDEO/PHOTOS: Naples church can continue to 'park' downtown on Sunday mornings

Video from NBC-2

— It didn’t happen exactly as Gene Scott imagined.

He had expected opposition, a discussion and maybe even a fight. But on Wednesday morning, Naples City Council members gave him exactly what he wanted – another five years in Cambier Park – without any of that.

“I’m doing great,” said Scott, senior pastor of Celebration Community Beach Church. “I’m humbled by the decision.” Naples City Council on Wednesday voted 6-1 to allow Celebration Community Beach Church to continuing using Cambier Park for five more years. The non-exclusive use agreement takes effect in November 2010, when the current use agreement expires.

Councilwoman Penny Taylor was the lone dissenter.

“I’m glad for you that you have the park, but to honor the original intention of these councils I have to vote no,” Taylor said.

“It was never the intention of City Council to allow the church to make Cambier Park the permanent home.” Celebration Community Beach Church has had a non-exclusive use agreement with the city of Naples for the use of Cambier Park’s band shell since November 2005. The church, however, has been using the park since 1999, when the city first issued the church a one-year permit.

The church had continually told city leaders they were in the process of relocating to a permanent location, but Scott said the move was voted down in 2003 because his congregation wanted to stay in the park.

“A large paradigm shift had occurred,” Scott told council. “There was, and is, a group that feels they have every right to use this park. And there’s a growing group of people who love to meet here, (because) this is the greenest church in America.”

The fact that the church hadn’t moved to a new location didn’t bother Councilman Bill Willkomm, who said the decision to grant Celebration church a new use agreement was one of the best he’s made.

“The community is changing in certain ways I don’t approve of,” he said. “I’ve looked at the changes in this town and nothing has pleased me more than voting for your congregation because I’m fed up with the godless heathens that are around.”

The church uses the park most Sunday mornings from 8 until 10:30 a.m., and according to a memo from Community Services Director Dave Lykins, the church “pays rental fees on time, complies with park use policies, voluntarily relocated to other locations in the park during large community events or concerts scheduled at the band shell and leaves the park grounds in good condition following each use.”

The non-exclusive agreement means the church has to move if another organization wants to use the band shell during that time frame.

The church pays $125 every Sunday in the off season and $175 every Sunday in season. That comes out to about $7,500 a year.

Some council members Wednesday expressed concerns about the size of Celebration, and whether the park was the best place for the growing church.

“This is a church that is supposed to be confined to a certain part of the park,” said Councilwoman Dee Sulick. “At some point you have to say is this use appropriate for this area.”

The church was founded after a 1996 Christmas Eve service on Lowdermilk Beach. A group of six people began regularly meeting each week in 1997, and the church has grown to more than 450 people.

But while some council members were concerned about the church’s continual growth, others said they hoped the church continued to grow.

“I don’t care how big you grow,” said Mayor Bill Barnett. “We’ll worry about that when it happens.” Scott estimated about 450 people were at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I remember when we didn’t have this many people at the church,” he said to a group of people following the meeting.

The crowd was so large the city had its fire marshal and a fire inspector on hand to enforce City Hall’s capacity requirements. City Council chambers has a capacity of 143 people, 90 seated and 50 standing.

City officials set up an outside viewing area just outside council chambers to accommodate the overflow. More than 100 people watched the meeting from outside.

Douglas Porter and his wife, Maureen Porter, were among the lucky few to grab a seat in chambers Wednesday morning. The two smiled after hearing the final decision.

“It’s a warm and welcoming place,” Maureen Porter said.

No one spoke out in opposition of the church’s use agreement Wednesday, a surprise to Peter Marsh, Celebration’s music director.

“I’m over the moon,” he said. “But I can’t understand where the opposition was. I thought they would’ve been here.”

The church has been under fire in recent months as the end of its five-year use agreement drew near. In February, community services board member Audrey Bender resigned from her position after the board said it would not discuss the agreement until the fall.

Bender, along with at least one other person, also initiated a complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The foundation’s attorney, Rebecca Kratz, in February sent a letter to the city opposing the agreement on behalf of its members.

Kratz on Wednesday said the foundation was a disappointment, but not surprised, with the outcome. She said her organization believed a “year-to-year agreement is more fair.”

“It should be available on a first come, first serve basis,” she said in a phone interview. “It shouldn’t be first come, first serve for five years.”

The new agreement goes into effect Nov. 16, 2010, and expires Nov. 15, 2015. Scott said he expects he’ll be back before council to defend his church’s use agreement before 2015.

“When you see a fat guy in a suit (this time of year) normally it means it’s Christmas, but for me it means City Council,” he joked. “We’ll be back.”

Connect with Naples reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jenna_buzzacco

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