TAMPA — When Dana Shores residents wanted to keep 23 acres separating their neighborhood from Tampa International Airport's runways as a scenic reserve, they did things by the book: They attended meetings and spoke to airport officials.
Others wanted to build on that airport land. But they didn't do things by the book: Surveyors trespassed on the property to see if it was ripe for development, without talking to the airport or residents who would be affected.
"The first clue was like, 'Oh, survey stakes,' " said Dana Shores Civic Association president Allison Roberts.
Residents mobilized and pushed back. Now they've won.
Bob Gries Jr., the founder of Gries Investment Funds, sent a March 7 letter to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, telling the airport's governing board that he will look elsewhere to build his proposed $20 million volleyball and sports complex.
"I now believe it is in the best interests of the community to focus my efforts on other sites," Gries wrote. "It is also important to me to be a good community citizen, and I hope this will alleviate the Dana Shores community of their concerns."
The letter does not solve the mystery, however, of who hired surveyors and engineers to determine if the parcel could hold a 150,000-square-foot building, recreational fields and parking lots.
Check Acquisition and Development LLC, which performed the tests, has declined to identify its employer. Airport officials said they don't know who did it. Neither do residents.
An airport attorney sent a Dec. 18 letter to Check Acquisition telling it to stay off the property.
Gries' letter doesn't discuss the issue, but instead led to another mystery: He said "individuals of influence and standing in our community" told him to look at that specific parcel. But the letter did not identify who told him to look at Dana Shores. Gries could not be reached for comment.
Consultants are drawing a new master plan for Tampa International to guide airport growth in the coming decades. Part of that plan is deciding what to do with several parcels of undeveloped land around the airport.
Dana Shores residents want to make sure the 23-acre parcel near them remains a scenic reserve. The consultant recommended rezoning the other parcels for commercial development, but said the scenic reserve should stay the way it is.
To that end, residents attended airport briefings on the plan and spoke to airport officials.
"We were very, very worried," Roberts said. "It's an absolutely inappropriate location for a lot of reasons."
The reserve is a slice of nature that residents enjoy, protects them from airport noise and gives the kids playing football and baseball games at nearby Skyway Park some extra room to practice and warm up.
"There's a safety issue in terms of bringing thousands of cars through Skyway Park, where you have little kids running around," Roberts said. She said she appreciated Gries' decision.
But while Gries is backing off the Dana Shores site, he's not giving up on his idea entirely.
In his letter, Gries inquired about the availability of the other airport parcels that may be rezoned for development. He wants to build the complex somewhere near the West Shore business district.
"I am interested in exploring the possibility of locating the facility on other properties owned by the Authority," he wrote.
The Aviation Authority first has to decide how to use those other parcels. The board will vote on the master plan in April.
"We will evaluate development opportunities for the parcels after the board has approved our master plan," said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink in an email.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.