Longtime neighborhood activist Sonny Irons spent the past two decades building his $1.4 million waterside estate in Fort Lauderdale, but now he argues it’s really a church and he shouldn’t have to pay $33,000 in property taxes this year.
Irons styles himself as the priest and presiding overseer of the Seafarer’s Church of the Creator and says he serves as pastor to about 15 people each Sunday in the gated 4,900-square-foot house where a pair of yachts rent dock space. Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish calls it a “tax dodge” and fears more homeowners will claim tax-exempt status as a church if Irons succeeds.
In front of the living room’s fireplace, 19 green plastic lawn chairs are lined up in rows for services. Bibles and religious material are strewn across the top of a nearby bar serving area.
“Everyone knows what a real church is, and this isn’t it,” Parrish said.
Her investigators twice staked out the house in Riverside Park and videotaped only a couple people entering and leaving the gated property during Sunday morning service times. Irons has counterattacked with 10 letters from friends, including a former city police officer, who describe him as “Pastor Irons” and say that he’s ministered to them.
The church-or-home dispute will go this week before a hearing officer for the county board that resolves disputes over a property’s taxable value.
“I suppose they are doing what they should do and make absolutely sure that this is a church,” Irons said. “There are people who might try to take advantage and pull some sort of fraudulent deal, but I’m not. We are just the same as any Catholic Church or Baptist church.”
Irons, 59, rose to prominence as a community leader, moving to Fort Lauderdale and buying the property in the early 1980s. He was a close confidant of the city’s mayor, Jim Naugle, and led the battle to improve the once-crime-ridden neighborhood.
Although Irons started building the two-story brick house in 1984, he did not finish until mid-2004, finally triggering a new assessment of the property. With a new assessment of $1.4 million, Irons’ tax bill jumped from $14,886 last year to $33,145 this year.
Public records indicate that 2004 also was when Irons began setting up the church structure.
He created a religious corporation in Nevada that May and sold his home to it for $10 in December 2004. As the only officer of the corporation, he then applied for tax-exempt status with the county last January, but was denied in May.
Irons said he always intended to use part of his home for church purposes.
He said he was ordained as a minister in 1958 while growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness and that he started the Seafarer’s Church while living in the Caribbean in 1975. He said he has previously held services in the partially finished home, on his tugboat and in his yard.
Although he says he has not performed any baptisms, marriages or funerals in Fort Lauderdale, he said he has counseled people. Irons said he recently helped save one couple’s marriage.
To back up his church claim, Irons and his attorney have given Parrish’s office weekly church activity calendars and bills showing that the church pays for the house’s utilities. Church signs are attached to the gate and fence in front of the house, and Irons has filed records with the county taking a “vow of poverty” and swearing the property will be used as a rectory and sanctuary.
Parrish’s office doesn’t buy it.
Her attorney, Ron Gunzburger, and her chief investigator, Ron Cacciatore, said they would have given Irons the benefit of the doubt if the case was a close call. However, they are particularly suspicious because the limited church activity and the fact that the church corporation’s creation coincided with the new assessment.
In addition to the surveillance tapes, they have other evidence.
The mortgage on the house is in Irons’ name rather than the church and is styled as a single-family home loan. Also, city code enforcement officials say the property is not properly zoned for a church.
The Internal Revenue Service has regularly listed the unusual type of company Irons formed in Nevada, a “corporation sole,” as one of the nation’s biggest tax scams. And while some friends and neighbors wrote letters backing Irons, others are surprised by what’s transpired.
Naugle said Irons never described himself as a minister to him, and Naugle said the first he heard of a church was when Irons mentioned he was seeking tax-exempt status. Neighbor and one-time community ally Ginnee Hancock also said Irons never said anything to her until recently about starting a church.
“I’m a very spiritual person and pray in my home every day,” Hancock said. “I can’t imagine he has more conversations with the Lord than I do, so maybe my home should be a church too, and then I won’t have to pay taxes either.”