2017 had it all: A sinkhole, Hurricane Irma, wildfires and floods

But, it also was a year of significant growth, notable achievements and touching moments, too.

It’s not often that Land O’ Lakes makes the international news, but it did just that in July when a massive sinkhole swallowed two homes in Lake Padgett Estates.

This is an aerial view of a giant sinkhole that developed in Lake Padgett Estates, swallowing two homes and causing several others to be condemned. (File)

Then, just a few months later in September, the world’s attention turned to Florida as a potential category 5 Hurricane Irma appeared heading straight toward Tampa Bay.

The year also was marked by severe flooding and wildfires in Pasco County.

It also was a year for the changing of the guard, as Dan Biles was named Pasco County’s administrator to replace Michele Baker, who retired.

Scores of headlines during 2017 involved stories about the area’s congested roadways — and projects that are planned, underway or being discussed to improve traffic flow.

Major road projects that have begun or are planned include improvements to Interstate 75 and state roads 54 and 52. A four-lane extension of State Road 56, between Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills, is also under construction.

With its sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, Hurricane Irma was deemed to be one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the Atlantic. At one point, forecasters said it appeared headed toward making a direct hit on the Tampa Bay region.

Another improvement, known as the diverging diamond, is planned to improve traffic flow at I-75 and State Road 56.

And, discussions continue over the best ways to reduce congestion at U.S. 41 and State Road 54, an intersection that handles roughly 100,000 vehicles per day.

The county also appears to be making progress in its quest to secure a permit for the extension of Ridge Road, a project it has been seeking for nearly two decades. While the project can’t come soon enough for supporters, its detractors remain steadfast in their opposition.

Increasing traffic is a symptom of Pasco’s robust growth
Housing developments, retail projects, restaurants, businesses and medical facilities are sprouting up on land previously occupied by citrus groves, farms and cattle ranches.

New schools continue to pop up, or expand, too.

Zephyrhills now has a permanent venue for community events, such as the Z’ Hills BBQ & Blues Fest, a popular event, which features blues bands and tasty barbecue.

In August, Pasco County Schools opened Bexley Elementary, in the Bexley subdivision off State Road 54 in Land O’ Lakes and Cypress Creek Middle High School, off Old Pasco Road, in Wesley Chapel. In the coming year, it plans to begin construction of Cypress Creek Middle School.

Also, on the same campus, the school district and Pasco-Hernando State College plan to operate a new performing arts center. That center will be built by the college with $15.5 million in state funds, but both the school district and the college will use it as a teaching facility.

Meanwhile, the school district continues massive renovation projects at Land O’ Lakes High School and at Woodland Elementary School in Zephyrhills.

More public school projects are expected, as funding for school construction gets a boost from increased school impacts fees adopted by the Pasco County Commission that will begin being phased in on Jan. 1.

On the private school front, North Tampa Christian Academy is expected to begin operations in Wesley Chapel in the fall of 2018.

Roy Hardy, of Dade City, who died this year, was known for his perfect Kiwanis attendance and his fish fry fundraisers for the Hardy Benevolent Fund to help cover medical costs for others in need.

And, a charter school also has announced its intentions to open in Wesley Chapel in 2019, but has not identified its location yet.

The year also signaled changes on the spiritual scene across the region, too.

Van Dyke Church in Lutz changed its name to Bay Hope and expanded the scope of its mission. North Pointe Church settled into its first permanent home in Lutz, and the Episcopal Church announced its intentions to branch into Wesley Chapel.

The region also added to its list of amenities during the past year.

In Wesley Chapel, the 150,000-square-foot Florida Hospital Center Ice opened in January, with its Olympic-size rink, three National Hockey League-size rinks and one junior rink. Several rinks can easily be converted to accommodate basketball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and events such as corporate meetings, and parties.

In Land O’ Lakes, the Heritage Park Stage opened, off of U.S. 41. The project, which was years in the making, has already become a popular gathering spot for community events.

Starkey Park District Park also opened in Land O’ Lakes, off State Road 54.

Meanwhile, across the county, Zephyrhills added a permanent venue for community events, such as Pigz in Z’Hills, a popular barbecue and blues event.

A time of milestones and transitions
While new construction made the news, 2017 was also a year of big milestones, including R.B. Cox Elementary School’s 90th birthday, in Dade City, and the Dade City Garden Club’s 70th anniversary.

Andre Pamplona, general manager for Royal Lanes, said the closing of a bowling alley has an impact on the community. Royal Lanes, which opened in the 1970s turned off the lights for the final time in May. Lots of memories were made in that building, known for its bowling leagues and birthday parties.

But, it was also the year that Royal Lanes, a community fixture in Lutz since the 1970s for bowling leagues and birthday parties, turned out the lights for the final time in May.

On a more personal level, the region mourned the loss of some of its biggest champions, including Eddie Herrmann of San Antonio, Roy T. Hardy of Dade City and Ray Mason of Land O’ Lakes. All three men were known for their deep commitment to civic causes.

Others — who captured headlines for their excellence — included Margaret Polk, the Odyssey of the Mind team from Wesley Chapel Elementary School, and Courtney Urban, a volunteer for Gulfside Hospice who received a national award for her volunteer work.

Polk, a school nurse at Pasco High School, was named the Florida Association of School Nurses’ 2017 School Nurse of the Year.

Elaine Pittman, a Lutz gardener in her 80s, grows plants and sells them to raise money for Christian Social Services. She chose that cause because it feeds people who are hungry.

Wesley Chapel Elementary School’s “Catch Us If You Can” team, finished first in the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals held in May at Michigan State University. Members of the team were Jake Piller, Sam Cappelluti, Isabell Barrios, Mina Melaika, Rowan Heyman, Jason Sherman and Justin Acosta. Teachers Veronica Acosta and Janet Heyman coached the team.

And, Urban, who initially began volunteering at Gulfside’s Thrift Shoppe in Lutz so she could hang out with her grandmother, went on to serve the organization in a variety of roles.

And then, there were the people who simply extended themselves to help others.

There was Elaine Pittman, a Lutz gardener in her 80s, who nurtures plant cuttings to create plants, which she sells to raise money for Christian Social Services, an organization that provides food for people who are hungry.

And, there was Whitney C. Elmore, who oversees Pasco County Extension.

Elmore reached out to help Frogmore Fresh Farm, outside of Dade City, after Hurricane Irma uprooted and toppled about 100,000 blueberry bushes. Elmore got the ball rolling, but hundreds of volunteers responded — stepping forward to help the farm.

Two Boy Scouts also made a difference in the communities where they live.

Michael Valenti of Lutz and Gabe Vega of Land O’ Lakes each spearheaded Eagle Scout projects.

Cypress Creek Middle High School students make their way to their second class the first day of school on the new campus in Wesley Chapel. Bexley Elementary School also opened for the first time in August, for the 2017-2018 school year.

Valenti spruced up the Lutz Memorial Park in Lutz, and Vega created a Rosary Garden at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Land O’ Lakes.

And, then, there was a trio of Wesley Chapel Girl Scouts in Troop 1263 who gave new life to Karina’s Garden, behind the administrative offices of Sunrise of Pasco County, in their quest to earn a Girl Scout Silver Award.

The girls — Paige and Kaitlin Trabouley and Alyssa Duran — added flowers, plants, butterflies and statuary to create a place of repose and refreshment in the garden which honors the late Karina Abdul, a former shelter director.

The garden now provides a place to take a break and enjoy nature, according to Vicki Wiggins, director of development for Sunrise, which is a domestic and sexual violence prevention and services organization.

The garden had been choked with weeds and had fallen into disrepair.

The girls and the volunteers they enlisted changed all that.

“It’s beautiful. I’m so happy they did this. They brought it back to life,” Wiggins told The Laker/Lutz News, when the project was completed.

Published December 27, 2017

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