NEW PORT RICHEY
Late one morning, Marcel Belleville was going 80 mph when a deer appeared in front of him.
"It scared the daylights out of me!" said Belleville. "I think I hit his leg."
Belleville, 71, was not speeding down the highway. He was landing his experimental plane about two weeks ago at Hidden Lake Estates, an airport community off Ridge Road that edges against a 585-acre public preserve.
His close call — the plane wasn't damaged and the deer took off for the woods — prompted airport owners to act after months of hearing that a growing number of deer are encroaching on the runway, putting pilots at risk.
Their plan: Start killing deer that wander onto airport property, a measure allowed under a state rule that lets airports take out wildlife that pose a safety hazard to planes.
"We don't have a mission here to eliminate deer in Hidden Lake," said John Edwards, a homeowner and the secretary of Airport Investors Inc., which owns the airport. "We simply have far too many."
But the airstrip running through Hidden Lake Estates is more than a physical divide. On the western side of the community are homeowners attracted not to the airport, but to a wilderness setting that has let them enjoy watching deer in their back yards.
"They won't recover from this slaughter," said Phyllis Pixler, secretary of the Hidden Lake West Homeowners Association, which represents 70 homes. "We're absolutely appalled at this situation."
No one has a count of the deer, of course, but, anecdotally, residents in Hidden Lake report seeing more of the animals than usual, sometimes in groups of half a dozen.
There is a combination of reasons:
Land cleared to make way for new homes in the area took away habitat. The rainy season has left the woods marshy, and the deer are drifting toward drier land. And some residents feed the deer — a point that state wildlife officials emphasize.
"This is only one of the problems caused by feeding wildlife," said Gary Morse, spokesman for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We have no shortage of deer, so it's not a conservation issue. It's a public safety issue. The answer if people don't want the deer shot, is to stop attracting them to the houses."
What about a fence?
One of the residents who feeds the deer is Ed O'Toole, a trophy hunter who bought a 7-acre lot and built a house on the western side of Hidden Lake Estates so his sons could hunt and fish just as he did when he was a boy.
O'Toole, who wears a necklace with a gold buck charm, has built deer stands on his land, and for the past decade has had an electronic feeding system that, six months out of the year, dumps meal on the ground for six seconds, twice a day, to draw the animals toward his hunting perch.
But O'Toole considers himself a conservationist: He's shot some big bucks on his property but teaches his sons not to shoot the does or their fawns. He was appalled after recently running into an airport employee who told him about the plan to bring hunters onto the airport's roughly 40-acre property.
O'Toole said he told the man that he could kill about a half dozen for them. " 'Five or six isn't going do it,' " O'Toole said the man told him. " 'We've got to take out 30 or 40.' "
O'Toole, who quickly spread word about the plan to other residents, said he understood the airport's predicament: He has spotted deer tracks not far from the runway.
But he said he believes the owners could take other measures — such as building a 12-foot-high fence around the airport property, or using a cayenne pepper-based repellent on the grass instead of killing that many animals.
He said he would stop feeding the deer but doesn't think it'd be nearly as effective as putting up a fence to block the deer.
"What else have they done?" he said of the owners. "They've done nothing other than say 'kill them.' "
Edwards said he and others walked the property with a game warden and asked about their options. He said the fence would have to be built within 20 feet of the runway, another potential hazard for pilots, plus a potentially expensive item.
"We asked the wildlife officer about other measures," Edwards said. "He said the only thing you can do is start taking the deer out.
"It's a tough problem and we're not out here just to maliciously kill deer," he said. "I've got some pilots very frustrated with the board because we've taken too long. If anything, we've acted too slow."
A state rule approved in June allows airports to kill wildlife that pose a hazard without getting a permit. That can take place 365 days a year, said Angela T. Williams, a permit coordinator with the state wildlife commission.
The rule says wildlife killed for airport public safety must be incinerated or buried on site. That requirement is to make sure that people aren't hauling the take away for their personal use, said Williams.
(If the wildlife is a protected species, the airports must try first to harass the animals before resorting to killing them, Williams said.)
Nearly 98 percent of wildlife strikes on planes are bird-related, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. In Florida, 17 white-tailed deer strikes have been reported since 1991, none of them at Hidden Lake, according to a federal database.
Edwards said the owners would hire hunters to do the job. He said the owners would meet with the homeowners association before moving ahead.
The hired hands can shoot only on airport property. State law does not specify a distance from private property that someone must be in order to discharge a firearm. The law does say, however, that hunters can't shoot onto, or over private property, without permission, said Morse, the state wildlife official.
Edwards said he did not know how many deer the hunters would end up shooting: That number depends on whether they see the population begin to shrink.
The targets may include fawns, state officials said.
"Any deer can be a problem," said Edwards. "But a bigger deer is going to create a bigger problem than a smaller one."
Belleville, the pilot who knocked a deer with his plane, said he won't feel comfortable flying again until the airport reduces the deer population. Taking off, in particular, could be a problem, he said.
"It's a very dangerous situation for the pilot," Belleville said. "They're nice animals but in this situation, it's them or me."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.