CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is moving forward with a roughly $45 million expansion project that officials say will alleviate parking issues and increase space for injured marine life.
But as the facility grows to accommodate the fan base created by the wildly successful 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, starring its mascot Winter, neighbors in largely residential Island Estates worry about the impact for homeowners.
"I have no qualms about trying to help dolphins or other animals, but the marine aquarium has become more of an entertainment center than rehabilitation," said David Dively, who lives about a block from the marina. "I don't think Island Estates is the place for a Sea World."
The Community Development Board on Tuesday approved the aquarium's plan for a two-story dolphin pool; a three-story, 437-space parking garage; and two four-story towers to house animal life support systems, a food court, coral reef exhibits, lab rooms, a theater and other amenities. The plan follows the aquarium's decision in May to renovate its current site rather than relocate to a larger facility downtown, which city officials had hoped would be a boost to the sleepy Cleveland Street District.
The current facility has no space to accept more injured dolphins in need of care, and the expansion is needed to continue the mission of rescue, rehabilitation and release, said attorney Brian Aungst Jr., who represents the aquarium.
"This is not an expansion for the sake of expanding, this is a necessity for the continued existence and success of the CMA," Aungst said.
CEO David Yates said the parking garage, which is designed to have decorative windows and a living green wall, will eliminate the need for three temporary lots spread between Island Estates and downtown, which now pose safety and logistical concerns.
The new two-story pool will allow the aquarium to take in seven more dolphins for rehabilitation in addition to the three dolphins now on site.
And a centralized parking facility and new towers will allow the aquarium to better serve the 800,000 visitors who crammed into the 4.5-acre property last year, Yates said.
Island Estates residents begged the Community Development Board to deny the expansion, fearing the aquarium's larger footprint will pull down property values and worsen traffic congestion on the island.
"The truth is that there is only one entrance and exit to Island Estates, and that comes from a heavily trafficked Memorial Causeway," said resident Vera Guinan. "On an island that is basically and majorly residential, a four story, 400-plus car garage is incongruous, they simply don't fit. … The CMA's ambitions have grown so large that they are no longer a fit for a residential community."
Homeowners also bemoaned what they saw as a lack of transparency by the aquarium because only 33 of the several thousand residents were notified of Tuesday's board hearing through a notice mailed Dec. 31 by the city. The notice went to those who live within 200 feet of the property — the only notice the city was required by law to provide.
Aquarium executive vice president Frank Dame, who organized a town hall meeting with the Island Estates Civic Association last week to discuss the plans, said the expansion to accommodate more visitors is needed because the aquarium funds its work to rescue dolphins, sea turtles and river otters through ticket sales.
The aquarium began expanding in 2011 with stormwater and landscaping improvements but opted not to pursue an 11,000-square-foot upgrade of a lobby, gift shop and outdoor tank with a 660-seat auditorium and 205-space garage.
Aungst said this plan is similar to the 2011 proposal that was also approved by the city yet never fulfilled.
"We have to keep the mission moving forward," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.