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Tampa sues boating club to get land back

In 1959, the Tampa Cruis-a-Cade paid the city $10 to use a piece of property on the Hillsborough River for its family boating club.

The city's condition on the property deed: The land had to be used for public purposes or the city would take it back.

Almost half a century later, the city wants to do just that.

In a lawsuit filed in September, the city says the Cruis-a-Cade "has failed to utilize the property for such purposes" and is operating a private membership club.

Club members argue that the property is open to the public, as anyone can join after a criminal records check.

The lawsuit says Cruis-a-Cade members "must meet certain subjective membership criteria," determined by a committee.

It says the public is restricted access to the club, which is used "primarily for the private enjoyment of its members."

The county determined last year that the Cruis-a-Cade doesn't qualify for "charitable" or "public purpose" tax exemptions, and the organization will have to pay $14,999.84 in taxes this year for the property that is worth $635,161.

If a judge decides that the club doesn't qualify as a public use, the property will revert to the city. Cruis-a-Cade members maintain that the club has always been open to the public.

"We are being forced to use our scarce resources to pay legal fees in order to defend the fact that we are a boat club, which we are, and we are open to the public, which we are," member Bart Siegel said.

Siegel thinks the city wants to develop the riverfront property.

The only screening the club does is criminal background checks, because the boaters once had a problem with a pedophile, Siegel said.

Last month, he solicited members in a letter to the editor in the St. Petersburg Times:

"This facility is open to the public. Seriously, this is a great place that needs to be preserved for future generations. ... Right now there are approximately 50 families that are members," he wrote.

"We would like to expand membership to at least another 50.

"I really don't know why everyone in the surrounding area isn't already a member.

"It's a great place, and a great deal," he wrote.

But council member John Dingfelder, a member of the Hillsborough River Board, said people have questioned the Cruis-a-Cade's public use for at least a decade.

"Sometimes it's citizens, sometimes it's staff just bringing up the issue that if in fact the Cruis-a-Cade is not being open to the public, then the city should use its legal rights to get the property back," Dingfelder said.

Cruis-a-Cade attorney Albert Cazin said the club will argue that the property has always been open to the public.

If the issue is not resolved through legal motions, it could end in a nonjury trial.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

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