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Complaint Targets New Aquarium Funding

RALEIGH — A state budget line item for an aquarium at a private development triggered a formal complaint this week from a Democrat who questions the appropriation’s legality, reported.

Richard Poole, an attorney and chairman of the New Hanover County Democratic Party, said he filed the complaint online Monday evening with the lobbying division of the Secretary of State’s Office. It goes in the mail Tuesday, Poole said, to other potential investigative bodies, including the Pender County District Attorney’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

The complaint mentions developer Raiford Trask, state Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, state Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, and former state Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, by name. The three legislators have said they requested a six-figure appropriation earlier this year for a new state aquarium at Blake Farm, a large mixed-use project Trask is building in Pender County.

Details on the project appear to be unwritten, and there is disagreement between the players as to who would cover actual construction costs, but the plan seems to be for Trask to lease the building or the land it sits on back to the state, developing homes and commercial districts around it.

Plans to use state dollars for the project initially ran under the radar in the budget, but questions arose earlier this month when the budget was tweaked, clarifying the project wouldn’t just be studied, it would be designed. There’s no indication the state reviewed other potential locations, and the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which operates North Carolina’s four existing aquariums, said it never requested the funding.

The budget simply states that $300,000 is allocated to design and permit an aquarium at Blake Farm. The actual amount available is about $254,000, according to legislative budget writers, though, with the discrepancy due to an error in budget documents.

Rabon, Millis and Grange pushed for state spending that “directly benefits a favored real estate developer with budgeted tax dollars, and raises numerous questions under North Carolina law,” Poole’s complaint states.

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