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    Clearwater can construct bridge, high court rules

    The Florida Supreme Court decides that voter approval of the Memorial Causeway bridge project is not required.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- The Florida Supreme Court sided with the city again Thursday, ruling that it can borrow up to $51-million and issue bonds to build a new Memorial Causeway bridge to Clearwater Beach.

    It was the second time this year that the state's high court decided a lawsuit about the financing of city projects. In January, the court ruled that the city could issue bonds to finance the construction of the Clearwater Beach roundabout.

    City officials were pleased with the ruling on the bridge, although they had predicted the victory after winning the earlier battle over the roundabout. The cases were similar.

    "We'll move forward with the bridge now," said City Attorney Pam Akin. "We were very hopeful this would be the outcome, and it seemed to be the logical outcome."

    Both cases hinged on the court's interpretation of the city charter, which requires voter approval before Clearwater can borrow more than $1-million at a time -- unless the city needs to finance a project for residents' health and safety.

    The City Commission decided that building a new bridge is a health and safety concern. Then last year the commission approved financing for the bridge. The project is estimated at $65-million and is in the final stages of design.

    Terry Sue Turner, a 25-year resident of the Pierce 100 condominium, whose association opposes the bridge's future route near the building, challenged the financing of the bridge last year.

    Her Clearwater attorney, Pat Maguire, argued that the bridge really wasn't needed for public safety but was an economic development project to spruce up the connection between downtown and the beach.

    And if that is the case, he contended, a referendum had to be held to approve the project's financing.

    In the end, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the City Commission acted appropriately.

    Maguire was disappointed, although he said the decision was practically a "foregone conclusion" after the court's ruling on the roundabout.

    Turner, president of Pierce 100's association, said the owners of her condo's 113 units would have to meet to discuss what to do next.

    She added that condominium owners stick by their objections that the city shouldn't be helping the state replace a state bridge, particularly along a route that will bring the new bridge closer to the condominium. Residents fear the new bridge will ruin their view and cause noise and dust.

    The court case decided Thursday was the second unsuccessful challenge brought against the bridge by Pierce 100 residents.

    Turner said that a third lawsuit -- for diminished property values that may be caused by the location of the new bridge closer to Pierce 100 -- is a possibility if residents want to try the courts again.

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