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Small Baptist church members raise concerns about Florida megachurch’s property sale

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Rezoning Hearing for Proposed Townhome Development on Former Church Site in Palm River, Florida

Rezoning Hearing Scheduled for Proposed Townhome Development on Church Property in Palm River

PALM RIVER, Fla. — A rezoning hearing is set to take place on Tuesday to consider a multi-million dollar proposed land development project that would see townhomes built on the site of a long-standing community church in Palm River.

The property, currently owned by a megachurch that acquired it through a merger a decade ago, has sparked controversy among members of the original church who oppose the deal based on restrictions outlined in the original deed.

First Baptist Church of Palm River, established in 1926 on a seven-acre lot near Palm River, has been a cornerstone of the community for decades. Members like Robert Almand and Guy Hays have fond memories of the church, which provided not only spiritual guidance but also community services like operating a resource center in partnership with Metropolitan Ministries.

However, in 2013, as the church faced maintenance issues and declining membership, it merged with Bell Shoals Baptist Church of Brandon, a megachurch with thousands of members. Prior to the merger, a restrictive covenant deed was created by the trustees of First Baptist Church of Palm River to ensure the property could only be sold to another church and must be used for group worship.

Fast forward to 2023, and the bylaws of the Palm River Church were amended to make Bell Shoals the sole member of the corporation. This led to the closure of the Palm River church by Bell Shoals’ lead pastor, Dr. Corey Abney, sparking outrage among former members who felt their beloved church was being taken away from them.

In April 2023, the restrictions in the covenant deed were rescinded by a unanimous vote of the church members, a move that former members claim they were not informed about. Subsequently, the property was deeded to Bell Shoals Baptist Church of Brandon, paving the way for a proposed townhome development on the site.

The current proposal for a 68-unit townhome development has raised concerns among former members who see it as a cash grab by Bell Shoals to pay off debts. With the Palm River property valued at almost $2.6 million, Bell Shoals stands to benefit financially from the sale.

As the rezoning hearing approaches, former members like Robert Almand are hopeful that the church can still be saved. They believe that the property should remain a church and are calling for a miracle to preserve the legacy of First Baptist Church of Palm River.

The outcome of the rezoning hearing will determine the fate of the proposed townhome development project, with the Hillsborough County Commission set to make a final decision in April. Stay tuned for updates on this developing story.

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