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Tampa International Airport director's solo decisions are at odds with Florida law

TAMPA — State law says a five-member board should decide whether a building or tower is too tall to be built in the flight path of Tampa International Airport.

But no such board exists. Instead, one man has been making the decisions that affect some of the most valuable real estate in the Tampa Bay area: Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority and the man who oversees TIA.

He decides who gets permits for the antennas, office towers, condo buildings, cranes, parking garages and other structures that exceed federal height limits near Hillsborough County airports.

According to a St. Petersburg Times review of aviation authority records, Miller approved permits for 44 projects since 2007 that were deemed safe by the Federal Aviation Administration but still exceeded height limits.

The authority's own attorney, Gigi Rechel, acknowledges that a board of adjustment should be deciding whether structures can be built taller than current rules allow — not Miller and his deputy planning director, Tony Mantegna. In 2006, she made this recommendation to Miller.

She proposed creating the board because she had concerns about the authority's compliance with the law, Rechel said. Both state law and a local ordinance call for a "board of adjustment" to review development within 10 miles of airports.

The law's intent, she said, is to better avoid litigation by having a public process where applicants can voice their objections.

Such boards also protect aviation authorities from a scenario in which one person has ultimate power to approve or deny projects, said Sunil Harman, the assistant director of capital facilities development at Miami International Airport.

Miami-Dade County commissioners serve as that airport's board of adjustment, assuring that each time a project exceeds height limits, it's discussed publicly, he said.

"These discussions should be transparent because the airport is a public facility," Harman said. "The executive director is an employee who could be misled. He could favor one party over another. The pitfall could be that there is a perception the process isn't transparent, that it isn't inclusive and doesn't allow everyone to weigh in."

Miller said in an e-mail response to the Times that when he started as executive director in 1996, he was told that the board had been disbanded.

He said authority planners told him then that the board was needed only if applicants objected to Miller's decision.

Appeals are a moot point, however, because no one has objected in the 14 years he's served as executive director, he said.

The authority had "taken the position" that a board wasn't necessary to approve structures that exceeded height limits as long as the FAA deemed those structures safe, he said.

But that's not how the Florida Department of Transportation interprets state law.

Officials there say the law, Florida Statute 333, was approved in 1977 by lawmakers who wanted a local board to serve as a second set of eyes to ensure safety.

The board also would protect millions of public dollars invested in airports by making sure new structures don't disrupt future expansion plans or flight paths.

The law is ambiguous and open to interpretation, said Aaron Smith, the DOT's state aviation manager.

Still, Hillsborough's lack of a board "is something that we would want them to remedy," he said. When DOT officials were told this week by a Times reporter that Hillsborough's aviation authority wasn't using a board of adjustment, they contacted Mantegna.

In an e-mail, Miller conceded that perhaps a board should have been used all these years.

"In reading the Florida Statute 333, one could interpret that if a structure exceeds obstruction standards it would require a 'variance' from the Board of Adjustments," Miller said.

Using that interpretation, that means the 44 structures Miller approved should have been reviewed instead by the board. And those are just the projects Miller has reviewed since 2007. It doesn't count all the development he has issued permits for since he took over, which includes International Plaza and the Renaissance Hotel.

The apparent oversight may put Miller back in the line of fire of some aviation board members who have been at odds with his management. New members Steve Burton, a lawyer, and Joe Diaco, a retired physician, have criticized Miller since Gov. Charlie Crist appointed them in August. Burton, in particular, has criticized Miller for the lack of international flights at TIA and his decision last year to demolish an office building owned by the authority.

"To be candid with you, I'm sensing a troubling trend with this director," Burton said when asked about the nonexistent board.

But other aviation insiders say the lapse is not a serious one.

Former airport authority board member Rubin Padgett signed the ordinance that established the board in 1986, but said he doesn't remember anything about it or why it was necessary. He said Miller is more qualified to decide which buildings and cell towers should be exempt from height limits.

"He would be the person who would have the knowledge and expertise," Padgett said. "That's his profession. I'm not sure why you would need a separate board to decide that."

Miller, who until recently had avoided much of any public criticism, is hardly welcoming the extra scrutiny from the past few weeks.

After Rechel told a Times reporter on Monday that she had concerns about not having the board review projects, she was made unavailable for subsequent interviews.

"From now on, any communication with the aviation authority must be in writing," said Kelly Figley, a TIA spokeswoman who fielded questions for Rechel. Asked who ordered this, Figley said it was Miller.

Miller declined to be interviewed, responding only in e-mailed statements to questions.

The board of adjustment is scheduled to be discussed at the authority's meeting Thursday, but it's unclear if this was done in response to the Times, which first asked about the board three weeks ago.

Miller said he discussed the matter in detail with his staff in July. In a Wednesday e-mail, Miller said "for several years" his planners and Rechel's office have worked with various agencies to revise the way the authority approves permits, which he characterized as a "tireless effort."

But Miller's recollection seems to conflict with what Rechel told the Times on Monday.

She said after making her recommendation in 2006, she never got a response back from Miller.

"I can't really comment on that because I don't know why," Rechel said.

Why didn't Rechel mention the "tireless effort" that Miller mentioned in his e-mail?

Miller didn't respond to a Times e-mail asking for a clarification. Rechel did.

"Mr. Miller's statement that the planning and legal departments have worked with various agencies associated with our code is accurate," she said. "I am not making any further comments."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Tampa International Airport director's solo decisions are at odds with Florida law 01/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2010 11:43pm]

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