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Aircraft noise watchdog carries on the fight

Lenox Stevens collected more than 100 signatures on a petition complaining about aircraft noise in South Tampa.

CARRIE PRATT | Times

Lenox Stevens collected more than 100 signatures on a petition complaining about aircraft noise in South Tampa.

BALLAST POINT — For nearly two years, Lenox Stevens felt like he was the only one.

The 58-year-old handyman almost single-handedly battled Tampa International Airport over its low-flying, incoming airplanes, which he claimed were crossing over his Ballast Point Boulevard neighborhood instead of staying in their regulated path over Tampa Bay.

In 2007, he called in 1,060 of a total 1,278 noise complaints to the airport. He attended several of the airport's quarterly community noise meetings, but thought everyone at the meetings seemed more concerned with quieting him down than fixing the problem.

When the St. Petersburg Times ran a March 23 article about his plight, Stevens was hurt that so many readers wrote in and urged him to "get a life."

But it didn't break Stevens' stride, especially when he began hearing from others in South Tampa who, like him, were tired of all the planes. It prompted him to create a petition to present to the airport and local government officials. "Since mid 2006, thousands of planes now fly regularly over South Tampa homes that did not before," the petition states. "We want them stopped and returned to their previous flight paths over Tampa Bay."

More than 100 people signed the petition, and many wondered why no one started something like this sooner, Stevens said. Some even attended the last noise meeting at the airport to back up Stevens' claims.

"There's no way all these people can be crazy or lying," he said.

• • •

Indeed, something did happen that caused commercial airplanes to shift their flight patterns in mid 2006, said Herman Lawrence, the airport's noise officer. Construction on one of the runways shifted air traffic eastward over Ballast Point and other South Tampa neighborhoods, rather than over the bay.

But the increased noise from the "overflights," as they're called, should have lasted only about a month, the time it took to complete the construction.

Residents say it never stopped.

Judy Guggino has lived in West Shore's Beach Park neighborhood for 34 years. It's much closer to the airport than Stevens' neighborhood and has always been plagued by overflights. But in the past couple of years, she began to "notice an increase at all hours," she said.

"They're so low," she said of planes landing on the east runway. "The noise is one thing, but the way they're so close just seems dangerous. They're surrounded by water so it seems like they could make a better pathway."

Mitch Evans, who also lives in the West Shore area and signed Stevens' petition, knew in 1994 that he was buying into an area near the airport. But he didn't bargain for increased traffic and, like Stevens, he sometimes wonders if the flight pattern has been shifted over the working-class neighborhoods to spare the more wealthy homeowners in Culbreath Isles and Beach Park.

"Or maybe they're just saving gas," said Evans, a contractor. "I worry because you hear about engine parts falling off and stuff like that. I know it doesn't happen often, but it happens."

In a little neighborhood called Mariner that juts out into Tampa Bay, just south of Gandy Boulevard, several condo owners have decided to get involved. Lesa Martino Whalen, who lives in that area, took her complaint a step further and wrote a letter to Federal Aviation Authority officials insisting that the noise and vibrations from the planes are disrupting the lives of children who play and sleep there.

"Their quality of life has taken a turn since the flight pattern has been directed over the middle of our neighborhood," she wrote to the FAA on Aug. 4.

Stevens collected signatures and stirred up outrage from as far away as Bayshore Boulevard and Swann Avenue. So many people, he discovered, want to keep the skies quiet and clear. He created an e-mail address so people could contact him with their grievances: planesnoflyzone@yahoo.com.

"They (airport officials) are playing a game," Stevens said. "And these people need to know the truth."

• • •

At last month's quarterly noise consortium meeting at the airport, Stevens expected dozens to show up and voice their complaints with him. Only a handful actually came, Stevens said, but it seemed like everyone's complaint was a little different.

"This meeting was probably the worst they've ever had," he said. "That's good news, I guess."

Stevens came armed with a small stack of papers, which he plopped down in front of Louis Miller, the airport's executive director.

"What he brought was a petition, and we're going to be responding to it," Miller said. "But what they want is all the flights over the water instead of South Tampa, and that's just not possible."

The flight path from the north, which creates most of the problems, directs commercial planes south over Hillsborough Bay, west around MacDill Air Force Base and north over Tampa Bay to make a descent into the airport.

But runway problems or bad weather can cause air traffic controllers to direct planes to shift their patterns, depending on which runway they need to use. This can cause some planes to go over houses rather than water, Miller said, and it's especially common in the summertime.

The airport didn't make those rules, he said, so Stevens needs to stop directing all his anger at airport officials.

"I don't direct airplanes," Miller said. "It's the FAA, not us."

But the FAA won't listen to him, Stevens said, because Miller and the airport officials won't admit there's a problem.

Stevens has also contacted the offices of Gov. Charlie Crist, state Sen. Arthenia Joyner and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, all of whom either directed his complaints back to the airport or referred him to the FAA. Stevens also wrote a letter to Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who received the letter but has not responded.

His next step is to take his petition and complaints to the City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission, and he also wants to start attending the monthly meeting of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, an appointed board that runs the airport. (Iorio is on the board.)

"Eventually, something's going to happen here," Stevens said. "It's just getting too deep. I believe the more pressure we put on them, the more something has to happen."

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

Aircraft noise watchdog carries on the fight 08/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2008 3:11pm]
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