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Feud over seaplane makes waves far beyond Lake Keystone

ODESSA — The seaplane is so loud, the author said, it scared his wife's horses.

It rattled the orthodontist's new hurricane-resistant windows. It woke the plastic surgeon on a Sunday, just after he returned from vacation in India.

For months, a feud has raged on Lake Keystone. The seaplane, some say, makes the lake its personal runway, buzzing homes and treetops, forcing boats to swerve, shattering the tranquility of this wealthy, waterfront enclave.

Nine government agencies and two Hillsborough County commissioners have been involved. None has come to the aid of complaining neighbors.

The plane's owner has flight logs and global positioning system records he says refute complaints. He's the victim, he says, of the homeowners association president, who he asserts has lorded over Lake Keystone for years.

Last week, this characteristically Floridian feud took an inevitable turn: the plane owner sued. But there's more at stake than legal damages or a man's recreational aviation habits. Life on Lake Keystone may never be the same.

• • •

In 1990, Jim and Laura Swain moved onto Keystone, a roughly 430-acre lake in northwestern Hillsborough. Jim, a mystery author, is the longtime president of the Lake Keystone Property Owners Association.

The Swains have made fighting nearby development an avocation. Over the years, they have protested or demanded input on a proposed housing development, expanded roads, the design of a new strip mall, a new carwash and a new elementary school.

Neighbors credit them with preserving the rural charm of Keystone, where empty lots sell for seven figures.

"People trust him to be our eyes and ears," said Dr. Mark Eberbach.

"They wield a lot of power up here," said Jim Griffin.

Late last year, neighbors started calling Jim Swain, 57, about the seaplane. Besides noise, some worried about safety. What if it crashed? What if it hit a boat or a swimmer? Would it scare away the eagles?

• • •

Gary Cohen sat recently in an airport hangar, in designer jeans and a monogrammed shirt, explaining why complaints made by Swain and others are absurd.

"He thinks it's Lake Swain," Cohen said, "and he's acted that way for years."

Parked behind Cohen was his six-seat, white-and-blue 1971 Cessna 206 Amphibian. Cohen, executive director of the National Association of Specialty Pharmacy, declined to say how much he paid for it last year. The plane is worth between $200,000 and $300,000, he said.

Cohen, 54, moved to Keystone in 1993 and raised three children there with his then-wife. He's now engaged to Ericka Ciancarelli, 36, who's learning to fly.

A conversation with Cohen is an exercise in the art of polite interruption. He speaks quickly and at length, with a thick Brooklyn accent. He had prepared a white three-ring binder with 75 pages of evidence: FAA regulations, emails with Tampa Port Authority officials and a propeller manufacturer, and copies of his flight logs.

He read aloud emails complaining about him, listing what he calls inaccuracies. In one, Swain alleged Cohen took off 14 times on a Saturday, starting at 7:30 a.m. Cohen took off four times that day, he says his logs show, starting at 11:11 a.m. He was giving rides to neighbors.

A boat has never had to swerve to avoid his plane, Cohen said, and he does not buzz homes or tree tops. He pulled up GPS logs tracking his plane's elevation. Typically, as he clears the lake's edge, he's between 250 and 400 feet up, or at least 100 feet above trees, they show.

"He's a fiction writer. He lives in a fiction world," he said of Swain. "This stuff is somewhere between Harry Potter and Star Trek."

• • •

Swain and others have contacted the following about the plane: the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Tampa Port Authority, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and offices of County Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman.

The FAA investigated and found nothing wrong. The DOT said it couldn't do anything, but county government could.

County Attorney Chip Fletcher disagreed. Florida Statute 330.36 (2) says a "municipality" can regulate seaplanes. A county is not a municipality, he said.

Swain turned to the Port Authority, which owns the land under the lake. A port official gave the same answer: The port is not a municipality.

Word reached the national Seaplane Pilots Association in Lakeland. Executive Director Steve McCaughey routinely deals with complaints about seaplane noise and safety, when he's not on the road lobbying.

Safety concerns are overblown, McCaughey said. Florida, home to about 650 seaplane owners, is among the most seaplane-friendly states in the country. Statistically speaking, he said, boats are more dangerous. There were 662 boat accidents and 50 fatalities in Florida in 2012, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The FAA does not keep statistics for seaplane accidents, but a review of newspaper articles from 2012 shows three seaplane accidents in Florida, none fatal.

A colleague of McCaughey's flew with Cohen in December, when the complaints started.

"I can absolutely assure you this pilot's not doing anything wrong," said McCaughey.

He acknowledged his bias.

"I try to be as objective as possible in these situations," he said. "I don't want my operators making headline news. I don't want them being bad neighbors."

• • •

In the past month, another complaining neighbor has taken the lead: Richard "Skip" Hirsch, 66, a retired orthodontist. Hirsch measured the plane at 95 decibels using an app on his smartphone, he said, putting it between a passing motorcycle (90 db) and a pneumatic drill (100 db).

"When the yard people come to do the yard, until they're right up near the house, I can't hear the mowers," said Eileen, Hirsch's wife. "This plane, I can hear it when it's out on the lake."

On March 6, Hirsch emailed a port official who, months earlier, told Cohen the port had no problem with his seaplane.

"You and the Port Authority have forever changed the status quo of our lake," Hirsch wrote. "Your two sentences of implied permission have enabled Mr. Cohen to threaten our way of life."

The official — Phil Steadham, environmental affairs director— sent Hirsch's email to a port attorney with this introduction: "This is absolutely preposterous."

• • •

On Jan. 29, Cohen's attorney sent a letter to Swain, advising him to stop "all defamation of Gary Cohen's character and reputation." Cohen has asked Swain to resign as president of the property owner's association.

Swain declined to meet in person with the Tampa Bay Times. In phone interviews, Swain said the situation has been resolved, and he's not resigning.

"I consider this a dead issue," he said.

Cohen doesn't. Friday, he sued, alleging Swain led an "ongoing, personal crusade" against him consisting of "fraudulent reports and complaints."

The conflict has already shaken up the association's board.

As tensions mounted last year, Swain asked longtime treasurer Tom Werner — Cohen's next-door neighbor — to step down until the dispute was resolved.

"He said it would be best for all parties involved," said Werner. He decided to quit.

"Personally, I think the plane is really neat," Werner said.

A few weeks ago, Werner said, he was standing on his dock when Skip Hirsch pulled up in his wakeboat.

"Is that your plane?" he said Hirsch asked.

"No," Werner recalled saying, "It's my neighbor's. What's the problem?"

Hirsch said he wanted to get the plane banned.

"I told him, 'Well, I don't like your boat. Maybe I'll try to get that banned,' " Werner recalled.

Wakeboats create waves that cut into his shoreline. He said Hirsch looked at him, puzzled.

"He said 'Are you kidding me?' " Werner recalled. "He thought I was being ridiculous."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Feud over seaplane makes waves far beyond Lake Keystone 03/30/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 11:56pm]

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