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Davis Islanders, airport panel clash over runway

Davis islands Fears rise, but the city's hands are likely tied.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 11, 2008


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The dispute is over 175 feet, or about half the length of a football field.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority says it needs to shift the runway at Peter O. Knight Airport to the southwest by that much for safety reasons.

Not so, say Davis Islands residents to the airport's south and west, who worry about their safety, not to mention noise, pollution and other problems, if the runway moves closer to their homes.

The Aviation Authority, they contend, should meet federal regulations some other way.

Residents have been at odds with the authority since it announced expansion plans more than a year ago. They recently collected more than 100 signatures and submitted them to the City Council, hoping for a reprieve.

That's unlikely because the city turned that piece of the island over to the authority years ago. Still, homeowners are prepared to put up a fight.

"What they aviation officials need to know is that we're educated and we're doing our research," said resident Lori Diaz. "We're not going to just sit back and believe their lies."

- - -

The battle over whether the Aviation Authority needs to expand Peter O. Knight - and more important, why - is complicated.

The Aviation Authority consists of five people: two elected officials and three local private businessmen. It manages Tampa International Airport and three smaller airports.

The Davis Islands runway that falls short of federal safety requirements is 3,405 feet long. Officials say the danger lies in the northeast end, which must be 240 feet from the ship channel and seawall but is only 65 feet away, a shortfall of 175 feet. The authority wants to add 175 feet to the southwest end and maintain the current length.

Homeowners argue that the authority can take care of the federal requirements by simply moving the line that marks the northeast end of the runway 175 feet south, effectively shortening the runway. Shortening the runway won't violate any rules, they say.

"This is true," said Ed Cooley, Tampa International Airport's senior director of operations and public safety, who is pushing for the runway extension. But the issue is not that simple, he said.

The Aviation Authority insists that its smaller airports need to run at full capacity to keep Tampa International from getting too crowded or clogged. Smaller planes are typically directed to the Plant City, Vandenberg (at Interstate 75 and Interstate 4) and Peter O. Knight airports whenever possible.

The largest airplane allowed to use Peter O. Knight is the King Air jet, which requires more runway space than other planes. It can still use the runway if it is 175 feet shorter, but it must unload some of its cargo weight to do so.

"Our goal has always been to have each airport in our system working to its full utility, and requiring certain aircraft to reduce their cargo undermines the effectiveness" of Peter O. Knight, Cooley said.

Neighbors, though, have pointed out that Peter O. Knight has only three King Air jets based at the airport. That doesn't seem like enough to warrant the extra 175 feet of runway space, said Warren Cohen, whose home on Martinique Avenue borders the airport property.

So why be so accommodating to the King Air jets or those of similar size? Neighbors suspect the reasons are financial, though TIA officials said that none of the airports make a profit.

"I think people have a right to clear and accurate information," Cohen said, "and I don't think that's what (authority officials) have been presenting to the public."

But one official said the authority has tried to work with residents.

"We have been as transparent as possible," said Paul Phillips, TIA's director of general aviation. "We're not trying to keep any secrets here."

The authority plans to continue meeting with Davis Islands residents and city officials throughout the $1.8-million runway expansion, which is expected to be completed by this fall. Additional hangars will arrive in 2009.

- - -

Many Davis Islandersremember what happened on June 12, 2006. A small plane making an emergency landing at Peter O. Knight careened off the runway and into the Tate family's home on E Davis Boulevard. A pilot was killed, as were family pets, and the uninsured home was destroyed. (It was later rebuilt by ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.)

"It still freaks me out when I hear a plane," said Lori Diaz, who lives next to the home.

Planes also crashed twice in 2004, so neighbors' fears are not unfounded.

Homeowners also worry that the closer runway and additional hangars for more airplanes will mean more noise, more dust and an overall cramp in their lifestyle.

Cohen has spent hours researching the airport's changes and safety standards. He has a decibel reader and has disputed the authority's claims that the airplane noise will be no different with the runway extension.

"Don't get me wrong: I'm not against the airport," Cohen said. "I like that the airport is here. But they're trying to turn it into a reliever airport for Tampa International, and that's not what that airport was intended to be."

Residents think the Aviation Authority has put its own spin on why the changes are necessary. Some have grown suspicious.

"They're not telling us everything," said Diaz. "They're trying to take our small community airport and divert all of the smaller planes (from TIA) here, and that's going to result in an influx of planes and noise."

- - -

City Council members have asked the authority's executive director, Louis Miller, to give a presentation and answer questions about the proposed Peter O. Knight changes at their meeting Thursday.

But in the end, it may not matter how city officials or Davis Islands residents feel. The city sold the airport's 110 acres to the authority in 1999, and agreements about the airport's master plan at the time may prevent the city from having any say in the runway reconfiguration and hangar expansion.

"I'm going to try to keep an open mind and hear both sides of the argument, maybe see if there's anything the city can do to help mediate between them," said City Council member John Dingfelder. "But it doesn't appear that we have much jurisdiction over the decision."

The Aviation Authority board, which includes Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and county Commissioner Ken Hagan, will vote on whether to go forward with the changes in February.

The city's apparent inability to act has further frustrated some residents. Homeowners paying high property taxes should have some say in what happens in their community, Cohen argues, and the Aviation Authority should have to hold public hearings and get city approval like everyone else.

"The impact this is going to make on the community is going to be gigantic," Cohen said, "and it's going to radically change how it feels to live here."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

[Last modified January 10, 2008, 07:28:11]


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