CLEARWATER — Two residents of condo towers in downtown Clearwater have filed suit in Pinellas County Circuit Court asking a judge to halt a November referendum on a new $160.5 million facility for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The city of Clearwater and Deborah Clark, Pinellas County supervisor of elections, are named as defendants in the lawsuit, which contends that the ballot language misleads voters.
The city also violated state law by entering into a tentative agreement with the aquarium, the suit alleges.
The 13-page complaint, filed Thursday, asks the court to declare that the agreement "is outside the city's powers" and seeks injunctive and declaratory relief.
Leaders of the aquarium, which now operates in a former city sewage-treatment plant near Clearwater Beach, want to lease public land on the downtown waterfront where Clearwater City Hall now stands and build a 200,000-square-foot aquarium.
"We believe the ballot language is misleading. … The vote is not for a lease," said Tom Petersen, 72, who lives in the Water's Edge condominium tower next door to the proposed aquarium.
"It's a truth-in-packaging issue," said Robert K. Lincoln, Petersen's attorney, during a news conference Thursday at City Hall.
The ballot question actually asks voters whether the city charter can be amended to allow the city to negotiate and enter into the 60-year lease with the aquarium.
The question also asks voters to add a section to the charter that would supersede other provisions currently prohibiting the city from, among other things, leasing public land for more than five years unless it has been declared surplus and voters have approved the lease.
Lots of work was done to "make the language as clear as we possibly can," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is leading the effort for the new aquarium.
"I am disturbed that a scheme has been created that (could) thwart the opportunity for the voters of Clearwater to decide the fate of the City Hall property," Hibbard said after the press conference.
Aquarium leaders already have held three public meetings and numerous community gatherings to inform voters, Hibbard said.
"This has been a very transparent process," he said.
The other plaintiff bringing the lawsuit is Inge Spatuzzi, who lives in the nearby Pierce 100 condominium complex. Spatuzzi and her late husband, Frank, also opposed construction of the new Memorial Causeway Bridge and a city marina along the downtown Clearwater waterfront.
The suit contends that a new aquarium would "eliminate the paths and spaces" that Petersen and his wife enjoy while visiting the downtown waterfront. Spatuzzi would lose her ability to walk to the city's Main Library through the roughly 7-acre site where City Hall now stands.
"The city has talked about a signature park someplace in the city. Well, I got to wonder, what's wrong with a signature park right here?" Petersen said.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said he believes the city followed the law when it agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the aquarium earlier this month.
"I think we've followed our charter," he said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.