As the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority moves closer to its vote next week on proposed changes to Peter O. Knight Airport, a vocal group of neighbors insists something's not right.
One woman spent days standing along E Davis Boulevard with signs that read, "Stop the Hangars!"
Another homeowner has spent weeks digging for records and documents pertaining to the city's 1999 sale of the airport property.
Even a former City Council member who was involved in meetings prior to the sales agreement believes the Aviation Authority is reneging on old promises.
The sale contract, public records and events over the past 10 years show that - legally, at least - the Aviation Authority has every right to add 175 feet to one of its runways and build more hangars on the east side of its property.
Although some Davis Islands residents support the airport's plan, there are those who say the contract is not all that matters. They say the authority and the city promised residents almost a decade ago the airport would not expand.
And now, it is.
"Words, to me, have meaning," said Nik Petrik, who lives near the airport and is determined to obtain records of conversations between city and airport officials that led up to the sale. "They have finality. Just give me the words. Please."
- - -
When former Mayor Dick Greco first considered selling the property to the Aviation Authority in 1998, Davis Islands residents and the City Council paid close attention.
Some feared the authority, which was leasing the property, would overdevelop the airport. They voiced concerns about noise, pollution and safety. They worried the airport would grow to block their view of the water and would expand to accommodate larger jets.
This was all discussed in a series of City Council meetings between Nov. 19, 1998, and Jan. 28, 1999.
In those meetings, transcripts show then-council member Rudy Fernandez wanted guarantees the airport wouldn't grow over a 20-year span and hangars and other developments would not be built.
Ed Cooley, who represents the authority and is senior operations director for Tampa International Airport, indicated there were no plans to expand then. He also said during the 1999 meeting that changes to the master plan would require public input.
The sale was final in September 1999. The city received $4.7-million, which went toward purchasing land for three city parks: Fort Brooke Cotanchobee Park behind the St. Pete Times Forum, the Joe Chillura park property on Kennedy Boulevard (later deeded to Hillsborough County) and the small USF and MacDill parks along Ashley Drive.
The authority received 122 acres of land, with only one restriction: If the property was ever to be used for anything other than a public airport, the city reserved the right to buy it back for the $4.7-million price.
That was it. The city put no restrictions on extending the runway or building more hangars.
- - -
Three years after the purchase, public notices appeared in newspapers and mailboxes. Peter O. Knight had a new master plan, which included a reconfiguration that would shift the airport's longest runway 175 feet closer to some homes. It also includes three new hangars on the east side of the airport. More hangars would be built after 2011.
The authority held three public hearings, as required, in November 2002 and March 2003. Cooley said few opposed the plan and attendance dropped off by the third meeting.
But last spring, as the authority announced plans to get board approval for the project, about 50 residents took notice, and some felt they had been misled.
Homeowner Warren Cohen challenged the authority's reports that the closer runway will only create a slight increase in noise. He and others demanded more tests in various wind conditions, which did show "a dramatic difference," Cohen said.
Lori Diaz fears the closer runway and increased flights will put her in danger. She has spoken out at neighborhood meetings and recently picketed along E Davis Boulevard.
One neighbor in particular, Petrik, thinks the authority or the city is hiding something. He has made several public records requests to Tampa's real estate and legal department, hoping to uncover transactions or conversations that led to the city giving up the property so easily.
But city staff say they can't find such records.
"We've searched high and low for this man," said city real estate manager Herb Fecker.
Fernandez, who lives on Davis Islands, also believes someone either failed or misled the public during the sale and spoke out against the airport plans at a recent council meeting.
But another council member who was on the board in 1999 sees it differently. Bob Buckhorn, who also lives on Davis Islands, is among a number of residents who fully support the plans.
"They've been great neighbors and that property is a jewel," Buckhorn said of the authority. "They've gone out of their way to accommodate the complaints of a small minority of Davis Islands residents. "Whatever else was said or discussed or written before (the final sales agreement) ... It's just rhetoric."
Petrik disagrees, and strongly believes the public was duped into believing they were getting one thing, while government had other plans. It happens all the time, he said, and it happened with this little airport.
"I've just got a particular fetish with this one," Petrik said. "Who knew what, and when?"
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.
If you go
Peter O. Knight Airport plans
When: Thursday, Feb. 7, at 8 a.m.
Where: Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Boardroom, third floor of Tampa International Airport's main terminal
Who: Six board members, including HCAA executive director Louis Miller, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and County Commissioner Ken Hagan. A majority vote is needed for the changes to be approved.
What's at stake: If the board votes to approve the master plan changes, the airport's longest runway will be reconfigured to shift 175 feet to the southwest. Also, three hangars will be added on the east side of the property through 2011, with more planned in the future.