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Neighbors protest plan for aerial ads

Monday was not a banner day for the Aerial Billboard Corp.

During a zoning hearing in Clearwater, company officials unveiled plans to turn a small airstrip in East Lake into a base for flying advertising banners over area beaches from dawn to dusk every day.

They said they wanted to be a good neighbor to the people living around the airstrip, and offered to hold a community barbecue twice a year and give free airplane rides.

But about 100 East Lake residents turned out to oppose those plans. Forty people from the Woodfield subdivision rode down to Clearwater in a double-decker bus borrowed from a local restaurant. One man kept waving an American flag and a hand-lettered sign that said, "Woodfield Residents Say No to Airstrip."

The offer of free food and a flight did not seem to sway them.

"As property owners, we have a right to quiet enjoyment of our property," said Woodfield resident Rebecca Myers. "I feel that right is going to be taken away from us unless we stop this."

Pinellas County officials listened to both sides and said they would make a recommendation to the County Commission next month. Late Monday, County Administrator Fred Marquis said he probably would recommend the county say no to changing the airstrip.

The privately owned airstrip has been there for years _ by some accounts, since World War II, long before the land east of Lake Tarpon became a booming suburban community.

Until recently, the 2,200-foot runway has attracted only sporadic use, mostly by people with small planes. No more than 10 planes could park there at a time. As far as the other area residents were concerned, the strip's owners, Charles and Lynda Jamison and Ruth Huff, were good neighbors.

But about six months ago, pilots from Clearwater-based Aerial Billboards began using the strip, flying four to five banners a day on weekdays and eight to 12 a day on weekends.

The frequent take-offs and landings on the short runway made noise and scared a lot of people. One of the people who got scared was Robert Grahn, whose house on Ranch Road is next door to the airfield.

The Jamisons "have been good neighbors but now they're selling us up the river," Grahn told zoning officials Monday. "If this goes through, I might want to borrow one of those planes and commit hara-kiri."

Neighbor Frederick Fletcher said the planes made so much noise that it sounded like standing behind an airboat. And Rick Murray said they flew so low that "I can just about see what color shirt the pilot's wearing."

Aerial Billboard pilots used the strip for several months until county officials cited them for not getting permission to operate a commercial business in an area zoned for agricultural and residential use.

So Jamison applied for the county permit. Jamison said last week that he was allowing the Aerial Billboards pilots to use the field as a favor.

But Aerial Billboard president Wayne Garner told zoning officials Monday that his company is actually buying the airstrip and "investing several hundred thousand" dollars in the property. He and son Bryan Garner said they hope to build additional hangars and a barn on the 11-acre site and park as many as 19 planes there.

The elder Garner pointed out that another son, Walter, is one of his pilots, and said he would not allow his son to do something he considered unsafe.

And he apologized for the noise. "We certainly didn't intend to rattle your windows," he told the neighbors.

Bryan Garner spelled out how his company would solve that problem: buy quieter airplanes, plant trees to muffle the sound and direct flights away from the closest houses. That way, he said, the planes would produce "just a little more noise than a regular car."

But he also said the company expects to tow 10 banners a day on weekdays and 20 a day on weekends, from sunup to sundown. The increase didn't sit well with the neighbors, whatever else the Garners promised.

"He's promised us the moon," Woodfield resident Jeanine Erikson said. "I'd like him to go to the moon and leave my quiet community alone."

_ Staff writer Wayne Garcia contributed to this report.