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Tampa man keeps an ear to the sky to fight airport noise

TAMPA

Tampa International Airport has a serious problem. ¶ Complaints about noise from planes heading to the airport more than quadrupled last year, reaching a record 1,278 — an average of almost five per day. That's up from 256 complaints in 2006 and 179 in 2005. ¶ What happened? Has air traffic increased so drastically over the skies of Tampa Bay that it's disrupting homeowners like never before?

Or is it just Lenox Stevens?

Stevens is a 57-year-old handyman who also runs a home inspection business and teaches martial arts.

A single guy with no kids, he cares for his ailing 80-year-old father in their modest ranch home south of Gandy Boulevard, not far from the bridge and Tampa Bay.

And for the past year and a half, Stevens said, they have feared for their safety, while listening to the constant roar of planes flying overhead.

They shouldn't be here, he said. He is determined to document each and every one.

Feb. 7, 2007, was a typical day: Stevens woke up about 7 a.m. and logged his first, a small jet. Nineteen more made the list until he got tired around 10:10 p.m.

"You can see big gaps in there where I went to the store and stuff," Stevens said.

Of 1,278 noise complaints last year, 1,060 — 83 percent — came from Stevens.

Commercial planes should be rare where Stevens lives. Many come from the Northeast and are supposed to fly over water, south over Hillsborough Bay, curving west around MacDill Air Force Base and heading north over Tampa Bay to make their descent at the airport.

Instead, Stevens said, they take shortcuts across South Tampa, which they're only supposed to do in dangerous conditions. Others have noticed an increase in the planes, but Stevens is the only one doing anything about it.

"I know it's become a real issue for him," said next-door neighbor Jim Walker. "We have double-insulated windows, so the noise doesn't bother us. But it does seem like there are more planes than there used to be."

Stevens attends TIA's quarterly Noise Consortium meetings, where residents can air concerns. He has argued for hours with airport officials, yet said he keeps seeing planes.

"Look, I know I sound like a lunatic," he said. "But I'm not. I'm just a guy who wants them to admit that there's a problem here."

Letters are flying

Stevens' frustrations now reach beyond TIA and Tampa. Politicians in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., have heard that wayward planes are flying over a neighborhood near the city's southernmost tip.

Stevens has sent letters to Gov. Charlie Crist, to state Sen. Arthenia Joyner and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

They, then, sent letters that wound up in the office of Louis Miller, the airport's executive director. He told them that the airport has looked into Stevens' complaints.

In an August 2007 letter to Stevens and copied to Joyner, Miller wrote: "I can assure you that we are not 'involved in some kind of coverup' as indicated in your letter."

Stevens remains unconvinced, and has written a new round of letters to politicians, alleging that Miller is "part of the problem."

New complaint policy

Staffers at the airport's 24-hour complaint line used to hear from Stevens every few nights. They logged as many as 50 complaints into their computers at a time.

The next morning, Herman Lawrence, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority's noise officer, had the hefty task of researching each one.

But the airport recently changed its policy for taking complaints because Stevens' lengthy logs grew cumbersome, sometimes taking Lawrence a half-day to research. The airport started taking only same-day calls or several days worth of complaints by e-mail or fax.

Stevens now calls daily, just before midnight.

So Lawrence, whose job also includes research and planning for other local airports, spends an hour or two on Stevens' complaints each day. That's better than before, he said, when the weekly research took him 15 hours, which translated into about $400 a week or $19,000 a year of Lawrence's aviation authority salary.

He sifts through past audio recordings of chatter between air traffic controllers and pilots to determine the reason for the shortcut near Stevens' home. Sometimes the reasons are valid, such as runway problems or bad weather. Sometimes they're not, and Lawrence sends a letter of violation to the pilot, but he says that's rare.

In many cases, Lawrence said, the planes Stevens sees are propeller planes, which are exempt from the flight path rules and have the option of flying over land whenever they want. Only turbojets, such as commercial planes, are required to fly over water.

Stevens said he knows a turbo­jet when he sees one. Sometimes his logs don't match the airport's records, so he started keeping an atomic clock and videocamera handy, recording shots of the clock followed by shaky footage of airplanes flying through the air.

"It can't just be my imagination," Stevens said. "They say the planes that I see and the jets that I film aren't really there."

He said airport officials don't seem interested in seeing his video evidence, which Lawrence disputes.

"We've begged and pleaded him to see the footage," Lawrence said.

Plus, Lawrence pointed out, none of Stevens' neighbors seem to have a problem. "He keeps saying, 'We, we, we' & But it's just him that calls."

Suit or no suit?

Everyone agrees that Stevens' complaints were initially legitimate. A sharp increase in planes began flying over his neighborhood in May 2006, around the time he started noticing them. Construction forced the airport to divert much of its air traffic and shift flight patterns closer to Stevens' home.

That work was finished by the following June, so the planes should have decreased. Lawrence said they did; Stevens said they didn't.

He suspects the airport is hiding something.

He said he heard about a noise complaint lawsuit settled between the airport and residents in the West Shore area, just south of the airport, in the mid 1990s. Stevens wondered whether the airport shifted traffic to avoid disturbing wealthy West Shore home­owners.

Last year, he asked Elizabeth Barron, a researcher at the University of Tampa's library, to help. She called the airport, requesting records on the lawsuit.

"The next thing I know, I'm talking to an attorney (representing the airport)," Barron said. "I thought, 'Well, this is interesting.'

"Basically, I got the impression that there was something they didn't want me to have."

Lawrence said the airport has searched its records, but the suit doesn't exist. Officials got the attorney involved because Stevens had already called several times about the mystery lawsuit.

Margaret Vizzi, a resident for 45 years and former president of the West Shore area's Beach Park civic association, doesn't remember any lawsuit either.

Said Vizzi: "I don't know if he's trying to get the airport shut down or what."

More calls to come

Stevens says all he wants is honesty, and he's not giving up until he gets answers.

He figures airport officials hope he'll get tired of the cause.

"It ain't gonna happen," Stevens said. "I didn't train people in the martial arts for 20 years to be called a quitter."

One night this month, something peculiar happened that piqued Stevens' suspicions even more: The night sky was completely plane-free until sunrise.

"There were no big planes, no little ones, nothing," Stevens said.

"So now I have another question: If the planes weren't going over my house that night, whose houses were they flying over?"

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Tampa man keeps an ear to the sky to fight airport noise 03/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 6:48pm]

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