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Lawyers for airport case are listed

Safety Harbor wants the altitude raised over neighborhoods near a Pinellas airport.

By MEGAN SCOTT
Published April 27, 2005


SAFETY HARBOR - Commissioners are considering hiring an attorney to help them with their fight over noise coming from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

At a work session Monday, commissioners expressed their frustration at the approval of the airport's master plan, which calls for spending $223-million for expansion over the next 25 years.

County commissioners approved the plan late last year, despite objections to airport noise from Safety Harbor, Feather Sound and other communities.

On Monday, Mayor Pam Corbino presented a list of attorneys to commissioners who have experience dealing with airport noise.

"We're not trying to stop the airport," she said. "We want them to raise the altitude like it used to be over neighborhoods. At this point, I don't think we do matter, and there is no one fighting for us on the county level."

Corbino said she thought airport executive director Noah Lagos would address the City Commission about the master plan.

Lagos said that he does not recall making that commitment but that he would be delighted to speak at a City Commission meeting.

"The master plan was approved in its concepts," he said. "Individual projects all have to come before the Board of County Commissioners. But if it's the wish of the City Commission, I'm glad to come back."

Lagos said he receives noise complaints despite the fact that the airport has lost 80 percent of its commercial airline service. General aircraft, such as corporate jets, make up 85 percent of airport operations.

Safety Harbor has been battling the county for years over noise complaints.

Commissioners even passed a resolution last year, opposing a proposed 10,000-foot-long runway expansion and expressing concern about the master plan.

The County Commission approved the expansion, saying it would allow the airport to accommodate international flights. County Commissioners also approved the master plan with a 5-2 vote.

County Commissioner Calvin Harris said the airport is doing everything it can to reduce noise.

"We have the noise abatement committee, and they are still working on ways to make sure the airport is part of the community and that people are not inconvenienced," he said. "The truth of the matter is that is the largest Coast Guard station in the Southeast and the Coast Guard planes are old and noisy planes."

Lagos said the airport is planning to conduct two noise studies and that the Noise Abatement Task Force continues to meet.

"We are trying to do what we can do to gain data in order to make a case with the FAA about changes in the air space," Lagos said. "The airport doesn't control the skies; the FAA does. I couldn't put a curfew on aircraft if I wanted to."

Lagos said he has explained this to Corbino, but she expects the noise level will get worse. The airport plans to build 75 hangars for noncommercial aircraft, and Boston-Main Airways announced Friday that it would begin regular nonstop service to Columbus, Ohio, and Newburgh, N.Y., with connecting service to Portsmouth, N.H.

Corbino raised the issue of hiring an attorney during a discussion on the 2005-06 budget at the work session.

While commissioners did not earmark funds for the attorney, City Manager Wayne Logan Jr. told them they could pull money from reserves later. Attorneys on Corbino's list typically charge $250 or $350 an hour, but Corbino said some may offer a discount to cities.

"We need to talk to somebody," Corbino said. "I think there are alternatives and there are things they could do. It's just easier not to."

One attorney who helped his neighborhood sue the city of Denver over aircraft noise from nearby Stapleton Airport said noise cases are hard to prove.

Mark Davidson sued Denver in 1981 on behalf of his Park Hill neighbors. The matter was settled out of court. Denver closed the airport and opened Denver International Airport about 10 years ago.

Davidson said the Colorado case was stronger because the neighborhood predated the airport.

"What happenes now is the airport exists and homes are built to the edge of it," said Davidson. "People then say, "Wait a minute; there's an airport here and I don't like it.' People can say with some justification, "You knew this was there.'

"Then again, just because they bought a new home near the airport doesn't mean the airport is not infringing on their rights."

Safety Harbor Commissioner Kara Bauer said that despite good faith efforts, the noise level is getting worse, even without ATA and Southeast.

Bauer said she and other neighbors consulted a Tampa lawyer more than a year ago and were advised not to file suit.

"It's going to be big bucks and there's no guarantee you'd win," she said. "I'm not sure that's the right way to go."

In other business, Logan told commissioners the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office plans to charge the city $128,000 for providing school crossing guards.

The department has never charged Safety Harbor for school crossing guards before, and the Pinellas County School Board does not help with the cost.

Sheriff's spokesman Mac McMullen said the numbers have not been finalized, but the office is in the process of looking at the costs of school crossing guards.

Logan said the $15,000 homestead exemption approved last year for low-income senior homeowners will cost the city only about $3,000. And that is if all 67 applicants are approved.

Commissioners also discussed adding funds to the budget for beautification, public art and new staff that may be needed after an internal audit, signs at the museum, better Christmas decorations and regular donations to the food pantry at the Safety Harbor Neighborhood Family Center.

Public hearings for the fiscal 2005-06 budget are scheduled for September. The budget goes into effect Oct. 1.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Megan Scott can be reached at 445-4167 or mscott@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 27, 2005, 00:48:18]


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