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Safety Harbor wants to clip wings

A town of only 17,000 residents is taking on the Pinellas County government by becoming the first city to formally oppose expansion of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

Safety Harbor commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday night opposing a proposed 10,000-foot runway expansion and expressing concern about plans to spend up to $223-million on enhancements to the airport over the next 20 years.

City commissioners say they want more protection against aircraft noise. Residents in Safety Harbor and other north Pinellas communities have complained about the noise from early morning and late-hour flights.

"We feel we need to say something," said Mayor Pam Corbino, one of most outspoken critics against the airport expansion. "Our lifestyles are going to be greatly hindered."

Pinellas County officials see the expansion of the airport as an investment that could bring thousands of new jobs and about $780-million annually to the county. The new runway would also mean the airport could accommodate international flights.

County officials have persuaded airlines to cut back on early morning flights and to agree not to schedule any new flights between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., although the Federal Aviation Administration has said the airport runway must remain open 24 hours.

In the resolution, Safety Harbor officials urge the County Commission and the FAA to divert flight patterns from noise-sensitive areas, establish approach paths of at least 1,000 feet above State Road 60, and eliminate all flights between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Corbino has said she hears flights coming in as late as 12:45 a.m. and as early as 4:15 a.m.

"It's a concern about the quality of life of people in north Pinellas," she said. "Unless we make noise about this ourselves, I don't think it's ever going to get addressed."

County commissioners have yet to formally discuss the master plan. Consultants and airport officials have been busy drafting and adjusting the plan, and it is expected to be presented to commissioners in the coming months.

Assistant County Administrator Keith Wicks said county commissioners will probably weigh the city's resolution along with other factors when they make decisions about the airport.

"I would like to look at it as a springboard for improvement on the noise abatement issues," he said.

The city's resolution asks the county to create more seats on the 17-member Noise Abatement Task Force, which has been meeting since last February to address concerns about expansion. It also questions the financial feasibility of the $223-million investment.

A copy of the resolution will be sent to the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners, the FAA, Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Transportation, Reps. Michael Bilirakis and C.W. Bill Young, Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush and each of the municipalities in Pinellas County.

County Commissioner Calvin Harris, a proponent of the expansion, said he was disappointed to hear about the resolution. He said the board has done several things to address residents' concerns, including adding a flight tracking system residents can use over the Internet and working with the airlines to keep planes from flying too low over residential neighborhoods.

He stressed the importance of the overall economic health of the airport.

"Maybe we're not articulating well how important this is," Harris said. ""We would like to continue to talk with the city and residents and find out how we can make them happy with what we see as a really important part of our economic plan."