VALRICO — At the end of Brandon Lakes Avenue in Valrico, grass mostly obscures the water that gave the area its name.
Jason Lockler, 25, grew up in the Brandon Lakes neighborhood. He says the only way he can enjoy what used to be part of Valrico Lake now is by going out on his airboat, which he has been riding since the beginning of the year.
But Shelia Morris, who has lived in her home on Brandon Lakes Avenue for 16 years, prefers the grass to the sound of Lockler's airboat motor.
"I believe that every neighborhood has its own Dennis the Menace," she said. "Now, our Dennis the Menace has grown up."
Morris says the airboat is a nuisance, destroying both the neighborhood's peace and quiet and what she calls protected wetlands. But Lockler and neighbors who defend him say he has every right to run the airboat and that he tries to help the neighborhood by cleaning up the lake.
Unlike other types of boats, Lockler said his airboat allows him to access the water in spite of the plants growing there.
"They're fun," he said. "I've owned every kind of boat there is out there."
The Brandon Lakes homeowners association has approached him about cleaning up the shore and getting rid of overgrowth, he said. In a neighborhood with small children, Lockler said visibility is a safety concern; alligators could be right by the shore and no one would know.
"I'd like to wake up and walk out that door," he said, pointing to his house, "and maybe see water one day."
He said he only runs the airboat until 7:30 p.m. at the latest, and then only for an hour a day. Lockler, a stay-at-home dad, said even his 8-month-old son doesn't mind the noise.
"I can crank that airboat up and run while he's sleeping, and it doesn't even faze him," Lockler said.
He only knows of two people complaining, he said, and he doesn't want the trouble. He said he asked some of the residents before he bought his airboat what time their children went to bed so he could be off the lake before then.
"I respect my neighbors because they're my neighbors," he said.
But Morris begs to differ.
Since January, she has called the Sheriff's Office repeatedly to complain about Lockler's airboat. Morris said that when he drives his airboat through the water passages behind her house, the windows shake.
"We can't even hear the TV or hear each other talk when he's back there running it," said Morris, 47.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office received two complaints about the airboat on Jan. 21 and 26, spokeswoman Debbie Carter said.
Deputies investigated and found that the boat had mufflers and proper safety equipment. They referred the complaints to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. There was no reason to believe the area was protected wetlands, Carter said.
Gary Morse, spokesman for the commission's Lakeland office, said investigators looked into the complaint and found no violations. State laws don't prohibit running airboats, even in protected wetlands because they aren't likely to cause damage. Some federal laws provide broader protection, he said, but only with proof that running an airboat puts endangered species at risk.
Lockler's driving privileges are restricted to travel to and from work because he has several traffic violations including careless driving and driving with a suspended license, state records show. However, that doesn't affect his ability to operate a boat. He said he registered his airboat and has all the paperwork in order. The boat is registered to Rocky Scott Francisco of Lakeland, who said he sold the boat to Lockler in September.
Although Lockler seems to be within his rights to operate the airboat, it continues to divide the community.
Morris said other neighbors hate the airboat, but she's the only one who says anything about it. When asked by the Times, several Brandon Lakes residents said they agreed with Morris but didn't want to speak publicly about the situation.
Joe Havian and Ronda Strain, who live in houses at the end of the street on the water, said they have no problem with the airboat.
Storm sewers drain into the water, Strain said, and pollution and overgrowth build up. Strain gave Lockler permission to launch his boat from her property. Even though he's in her back yard, she doesn't find the noise intrusive.
"I wish people were more concerned about the lake than the noise," she said.
Havian, who just sold his house, said the lake looks better than he has seen it look in years.
Havian said Lockler offered to get rid of weeds and invasive plants for the neighbors for a lower price than professional companies would charge. Havian said Lockler's airboat does the neighborhood a service, although he is not doing any paid work on the lake.
"There are some people who are going to say he's a neighborhood terror, and he's had his moments," Havian said. "I think that if it were anybody but Jason, a lot of the complainers would not be complaining."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Hilary Lehman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2441.