TAMPA — According to an engineer's report, the 23 empty acres bordering Dana Shores is perfectly suitable for a $20 million sports complex. There would be enough room for a 150,000-square-foot building, recreational fields, parking lots and roads.
But what the report doesn't say is also important: Those 23 acres belong to the Tampa International Airport. The airport didn't give anyone permission to enter the property to conduct those tests. And it's zoned as a scenic reserve — so no construction would be allowed anyway.
But the existence of the engineering report is a troubling sign for Dana Shores residents who oppose a proposed sports complex near their neighborhood.
It's not the only sign. When residents discovered that the study had been done in December, according to a homeowners association email to the airport, they also reported that someone placed a traffic counter nearby. And residents spotted orange flags and spray-paint markings, leading them to believe someone was trying to identify underground utility lines.
The problem to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the airport's governing board, is clear.
"You don't get to go on someone else's property to get soil samples," he said.
After discovering that activity, residents complained to the airport's governing board, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The authority wrote a Dec. 18 cease-and-desist letter to Check Acquisition and Development LLC, which arranged for the study. The message: Stay off airport property.
"The Authority demands that you immediately cease and desist performing any further borings and/or investigations on the Dana Shores Property," wrote assistant general counsel David Scott Knight, "as well as immediately discontinue any illegal trespassing."
The sports complex is the brainchild of former Tampa Bay Storm owner Bob Gries, who is leading a group that wants to build the complex in the West Shore district. They're being assisted by former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, a longtime developers' representative, who said the Dana Shores site is an attractive property but just one of several the group is considering.
Residents, however, oppose the project in their neighborhood. They spoke out against the idea at an airport meeting last week.
It was unclear who ordered and paid for the studies. Brian Check, the managing member of Check Acquisition and Development, declined to identify his employer. Airport officials say they don't know who it was.
But he did say his firm was led to believe that the "nondestructive" testing would be okay with the airport and that the area was publicly accessible anyway.
"We were under the impression that everyone was aware of what was going on," he said.
Greco said he wasn't able to speak to Gries this week about the issue.
The former mayor said he doesn't know who ordered the tests either, but he surmised it could have been one of the investors who pledged to help Gries build the sports complex.
"Unfortunately, it got a little out of hand without anyone realizing it," Greco said. "I'm sure people are going and looking at it on their own because they're interested in making something happen."
Greco said residents shouldn't be concerned that someone would try to build the complex without their input. But he said he also apologized to residents at last week's meeting for the intrusion. "I never operate that way."
Dana Shores Civic Association president Allison Roberts declined to comment Thursday.
The issue is coming to a head because the 23-acre parcels' status as a scenic reserve is up for review as part of Tampa International's new master plan.
While a consultant has recommended that the airport convert five parcels to commercial use, it has also recommended that the 23-acre parcel remain a scenic reserve. The land sits on the west side of the Veterans Expressway, buffering Dana Shores from airport noise.
The aviation authority board will vote on the master plan — and the status of the 23 acres — in April. But Buckhorn said he sees no reason to go against the consultant's opinion and change the scenic reserve's status. Neither does chairman Steven Burton.
Said the chairman: "I'm inclined to really seriously consider what our experts tell us is the best use for the land."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.