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City Council approves late-night landings at Clearwater Airpark

CLEARWATER — What fiery anger two hours can bring.

The City Council debated Thursday whether to extend the hours for landings and takeoffs at the Clearwater Airpark from 9 to 11 p.m., giving pilots who fled for runways with later curfews a reason to return.

Council members voted 4-1 to extend the curfew on a six-month trial basis, with council member Bill Jonson dissenting. Airpark leaders will deliver regular reports on air traffic and neighbor complaints.

But the proposal — which leaders said at first wouldn't see much turbulence — met stiff resistance from neighbors who said living in the flight path was already bad enough.

They argued a later curfew would create more noise and hurt their property values. Some questioned why the pilots couldn't just choose another airport or plan their day better.

Judy Ann Talley, 66, who lives about a mile away on Ashland Drive, said every day she hears "these stupid planes." She worried a later time would disturb her morning devotionals.

"I go to bed at 9 o' clock at night," Talley said. "You think I can sleep with planes flying around?"

Opponents argued the later time would put families in danger. Resident Elaine Granata posted fliers falsely claiming the airpark had seen three crashes in 18 months. (There has been only one in the past 18 months, and it wasn't at night.)

"If we are asleep when we hear a plane sputter," she wrote, "will we have time to get our loved ones out of our homes to safety?"

One opponent referenced 9/11 in a blog post, noting that two hijackers practiced takeoffs and landings at the airpark — after nightfall. "What happens," Derek Roberts wrote, "if there's a problem?"

Others, including airpark neighbors, argued the later curfew could be safer. Island Estates resident Bruce Brock said early curfews pushed pilots to brave bad conditions.

Dennis Roper, chairman of the airpark advisory board, said the later hours would likely bring about three or four late landings a month — and, hopefully, win the pilots' business back for good.

The airpark pays the city 51/2 percent of hangar rentals and fuel sales, which combined to raise $240,000 last year. Each gallon of fuel sold nets the city 10  cents.

Ellen Hess, who lives beneath the airpark's landing pattern, said the few takeoffs and landings were well worth the money brought into the city.

Others said the airpark's small turboprop aircraft were much quieter than the jets of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

When the airpark, a grass runway carved out of orange groves, opened in 1939, pilots could take off or land all night. It wasn't until the early 1970s, after the groves were supplanted with homes, that neighbors pushed for a closing time.

The old curfew allowed landings between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m,, with takeoffs until 9 p.m. or an hour after sunset, whichever was earlier. The "agrarian-based" model, Roper said, stoked confusion as seasons changed.

The airpark has hosted about 500,000 takeoffs and landings over the past decade, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Eight of them ended in crashes, only one of which happened after 2005. Five people were killed.

The most recent, when a single-engine Piper carrying supplies for Haiti crashed into a Patricia Avenue home last year, didn't injure anyone. The airpark has never had a nighttime crash.

The airpark is on higher ground than St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport or Albert Whitted in St. Petersburg, making it a critical landing strip for supplies in case of a hurricane or rising storm surge. The U.S. Coast Guard has permission to store its fuel truck there during hurricane warnings.

"We don't know when the hurricane will hit. We just know it will," council member John Doran said. "When it hits, it won't just be us who needs that airpark."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

City Council approves late-night landings at Clearwater Airpark 05/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 20, 2011 7:55pm]
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