//Adventure Church is Suing the Tower Theatre. Can this Marriage be Saved?

Adventure Church is Suing the Tower Theatre. Can this Marriage be Saved?

By Jaguar Bennett  | jaguarbennett@gmail.com

When we last looked at the ongoing saga of Adventure Church’s quixotic attempt to plant a homophobic church in Fresno’s one gay neighborhood, the forces of righteousness had won a major victory. On January 19, Sequoia Brewing Company won its appeal to maintain the legal block on selling the Tower Theatre. Even better, the forces of evil were roundly punished; after finding that Tower Theatre owner Laurence Abbate had acted in bad faith, the court ordered Abbate to pay Sequoia’s legal fees.

(If you’re just tuning in to this soap opera, Sequoia has an ongoing lawsuit to block the sale of the Tower Theatre. It has been rumbling its way through the courts since early last year. Sequoia, which leases its Tower location from the Tower Theatre, argues that its lease agreement gives them the first right of refusal to buy the theater if it’s ever put up for sale. This case may be resolved sometime in 2023. It’s been a thing.)

But Abbate’s woes were just beginning. On February 9, it was reported that Adventure Church was also suing Abbate. In its court filing, Adventure Church alleged that Abbate had not disclosed Sequoia’s first right of refusal when Adventure agreed to buy the theater. As a result, Adventure demanded that its purchase of the theater be completed and, because why not, that Abbate should have to pay their legal fees as well.

If you’re keeping score, Abbate is definitely on the hook for Sequoia’s legal fees and may be forced to pay Adventure’s as well — which would serve him right for his double-dealing. Abbate is now in the hole for tens of thousands of dollars or possibly even over $100,000. Somehow I don’t believe Abbate will be remembered as a genius businessman.

On its face, Adventure would seem to have a legit case against Abbate. (Unless Adventure already knew about Sequoia’s right of first refusal when the church signed a purchase contract for the theater.) But Adventure has known about Sequoia’s first right of refusal since February of last year. If Abbate’s deceptions truly blindsided them, they could have sued him a year ago. I don’t see why they waited a year to decide they had been cheated.

One would also think that if you genuinely believed that a seller had deceived you, you would pull out of the deal. But Adventure continues to rent the theater to hold services every Sunday. So do they trust Abbate or not?

Whatever the sincerity of Adventure’s grievance against Abbate, the remedies they demand are ridiculous. If the substance of Adventure’s complaint is that Abbate did not disclose Sequoia’s right of refusal, Adventure’s suit concedes right from the start that Sequoia has a legitimate right of first refusal. And if Sequoia indeed has first right of refusal, then that contractual right can’t be taken away just because Adventure demands it. Well, no one ever claimed that Adventure was run by smart people.

What makes this even more absurd is that, as soon as Adventure’s lawsuit was reported in the news, Adventure Church Pastor Anthony Flores released a video to his congregation insisting the lawsuit was not a genuine grievance against Abbate but merely a negotiation tactic. To me, that seems like an admission of filing a frivolous lawsuit.

And why did Flores want to play negotiating hardball with his good friend Laurence Abbate? Because Abbate had been holding closed-door talks with the Fresno City Council. Rumor had it that Abbate, squeezed by Sequoia’s legal fees, was now desperate to find a buyer and was looking to the city for a bailout. (I don’t know why the obvious solution of settling with Sequoia did not occur to Abbate.) Apparently, Adventure’s lawsuit was a shot across Abbate’s bow to warn him that the church would sue if he sold to anyone else. I think it’s safe to say that Laurence Abbate is now one of the most unpopular men in the Tower District, but he brought it all on himself.

The ownership of the theater will not be settled until Sequoia’s suit against Abbate goes to trial sometime in 2023. In the meantime, Adventure Church still holds services in blatant defiance of zoning law. The city of Fresno still refuses to take any action about it, presumably out of fear of being sued by the lawsuit-happy church.

But the city has been put on the spot by a complaint filed with the Fresno City Planning Commission by Lisa Flores, a well-known gadfly at city public hearings. Flores, an opponent of Adventure Church’s takeover of the Tower Theatre, filed a complaint with the planning commission, asking the commission to deny a conditional use permit to serve alcohol at CDT Cocina, a new restaurant in the Tower Theatre building.

In her complaint, Flores argued that CDT Cocina’s liquor sales were too close to Adventure Church’s worship services and child care facilities in the same building. In response, CDT Cocina filed a letter noting that the Tower Theatre is zoned for restaurants but that Adventure’s religious and child-care services violate zoning.

The planning commission considered Lisa Flores’ complaint at a March 2 meeting. I don’t yet know the result, but it will be great to put the city on record that Adventure is violating zoning.