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Donor gets approval for helipad

One month after taking office, the newly constituted Hillsborough County Commission has approved an oil executive's request for a helicopter landing pad at his Lake Magdalene area home.

The rezoning passed Tuesday in a 4-3 vote.

The four commissioners who favored the zoning change received a total of $15,500 in campaign contributions in the last election from the executive and his family, friends and associates.

Commissioners who voted to allow the helipad were Mark Sharpe, Kevin White, Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham.

The commission candidates who got donations from Tony Ferguson and associates were Sharpe ($8,000), White ($5,000), Norman ($1,500) and Higginbotham ($1,000).

White, Norman and Higginbotham did not respond to requests for comment.

Sharpe said campaign contributions were not a factor in his decision.

"I don't spend any time looking at who gives me money," he said after the meeting. "But when I looked at this ... I was excited about it," Sharpe said about Ferguson's proposal.

Giving Ferguson the flexibility to fly, Sharpe said, is a "recruitment tool" for area economic development.

"(Executives) moving into our community are looking for mobility options ... as a growing metropolitan community, it's important to have alternative modes of travel," he said.

Still, one commissioner was not so convinced.

Ken Hagan, who lives near the proposed landing site, said he sympathized with residents who oppose having it in the neighborhood.

"I don't think it was compatible to be in a residential neighborhood," said Hagan, who lives in the Lake Magdalene area, just south of Ferguson's home.

A report from a county land use hearing officer three months ago raised the same concerns and called the helipad inappropriate and inconsistent with the Hillsborough comprehensive plan for the area.

But White called Ferguson's efforts to decrease the helicopter's impact "commendable."

Ferguson bought a neighboring house that he plans to raze and has agreed to restrictions to lessen the effect on the neighborhood.

He "has done everything humanly possible to mitigate any noise ... or (negative) impact on the neighborhood," White said.

White, in arguing for a yes vote, cited numerous reports and studies stating that the helicopter's impact would be minimal.

The board's decision marks the end of a dispute that has been going on for nearly four years.

Ferguson had been landing two helicopters on his estate since 1995 until neighbors began complaining in 2003.

Two years ago, Ferguson proposed building a landing pad in his back yard.

After two failed attempts to rezone the property, he formed the nonprofit Tampa Bay Helicopters Association and hired lawyers to lobby commissioners to change a county ordinance.

In June 2005, commissioners yielded.

In a 5-2 vote, they revised county requirements that helicopter landing pads be allowed only in areas zoned commercial or agricultural and be at least 500 feet from the nearest home.

In return, Ferguson said he would comply with conditions that are nearly identical to the conditions attached to Tuesday's board approval.

The board decision also includes the approval of putting five residential units, a helicopter hangar, a storage building and a new lot on Ferguson's 11.8 acres.

Ferguson said he plans to use the helicopter about three times a week, and most of the time it is out of the state.

Times staff writer Bill Varian and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Amber Mobley can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or amobley@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Accepting donations, and saying yes

Commissioners who got campaign contributions from Tony Ferguson and his associates, then voted in favor of Ferguson's helipad, were Mark Sharpe ($8,000), Kevin White ($5,000), Jim Norman ($1,500) and Al Higginbotham ($1,000).

FAST FACTS

The restrictions

The County Commission's 4-3 vote to approve oil executive Tony Ferguson's request for a helicopter landing pad at his Lake Magdalene area home comes with restrictions:

- Ferguson is limited to flying over Lake Platt, can fly during daylight hours and must fly in a south-to-north direction, said his attorney, Rhea Law.

- Ferguson is not allowed to refuel or make repairs to the helicopter on site.

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