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Island Estates Neighbors Sue To Stop Aquarium Expansion

In Florida – tourism is king. More than 104 million people visited the Sunshine state in 2015 paying sales taxes and supporting jobs in the hotel, entertainment and restaurant industries.

But how many more tourists can the state accommodate before tourism becomes an un-welcomed burden to the taxpayers who live here?

One small neighborhood in Clearwater, Island Estates, is saying “no more” to the tourism attraction in its midst.

The community is accessible by only one road off the north side of Clearwater’s Memorial Causeway which is the main artery to many of Pinellas County’s beaches. Island Estates is a residential, waterfront community with a small shopping strip, a restaurant and gas station.

“There’s a feeling of openness,” said resident Vera Guinan who bought her townhouse in 1999. “Even the tall condo buildings are not built along the edge of the water so that people can see it.”

But the neighborhood of about 3,100 residents absorbed more than 800,000 tourists last year because Island Estates is also home to Winter and Hope – the dolphins at Clearwater Marine Aquarium portrayed in the movies Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2.

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Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
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WUSF Public Media
Guinan holds up some of the petitions she's gathered from residents opposing the 4-level parking garage and major CMA expansion.

Guinan collected more than 1,000 petition signatures opposing the aquarium’s proposed 437 car garage. Plans show the structure would stand more than 50 feet high and stretch 500 feet along the road across from her townhouse complex.

“That looks like the Berlin Wall,” Guinan said adding that residents recognize the aquarium is a tourist attraction but it should focus on its mission of rescue and rehab not serving tourists.

“But if you want to go big-time on tourism, you need another location. End of story,” Guinan said. “It is slowly, stealthily morphing into a Sea World without any consultation with the residents.”

The CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquariumm, David Yates, did expect a jump in annual attendance. It was just 76,000 when he took over 10 years ago, an average just over 200 people a day. In 2015, CMA averaged 2,200 visitors daily.

“I knew before the movies came out, for example, that there’s going to be a massive influx of people to come see us because it’s a major motion picture – family major motion picture,” Yates said. “And we’re located in Florida, a family destination two hours from Disney.”

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Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
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WUSF Public Media
Tourists leaving the aquarium heading to satellite parking lots or on-street parking in the residential neighborhood.

Yates said the on-site parking garage would eliminate satellite parking that residents have complained about for years. And he calculates that the larger crowds are necessary to fund the non-profit’s rescue and rehab work with marine animals.

“The mission may be great, but they didn’t build a revenue model to support that,” Yates said.

Before coming to CMA, Yates ran the for-profit, Ironman Triathlons. So, he knows marketing and the value of a good story like Winter the tailless dolphin who was fitted with a prosthetic.

“Kids going through chemotherapy, kids that are autistic, kids that have prosthetic legs, kids that are burn survivors, you name it we’ve got thousands and thousands of emails, calls and visits about how Winter’s story inspired them through those challenges,” Yates said.

The dolphin’s story certainly inspired state officials who gave CMA $8 million over the last three years for marketing and expansion so it could accept more wounded dolphins and turtles.

But that irks resident Peter Kohut. The retired civil engineer also is upset that the aquarium’s expansion plan used dated traffic studies and allows cars to exit from the four-level parking garage through a restaurant portico and across a busy pedestrian and bike path.

“This is a disaster. Someone will die here and that’s a terrible thing to say, but this is a terrible thing,” Kohut said.

Kohut explained that he couldn’t stay silent. He objected at the 2016 January Clearwater Community Development Board hearing, but the CMA expansion was approved by the appointed board anyway.

He hired an attorney to appeal without knowing what kind of support he’d get from neighbors until they held a residents’ meeting.

“Everybody in room went to their purse and brought out $100 and we walked away with like $700 that first night,” Kohut said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Holy cow, these people are pissed.’”

Since then, dozens of more residents have contributed to the legal appeal.

The city of Clearwater declined to comment because of the lawsuit. The Island Estates appeal hearing is scheduled in April.