Supporters tout quality of education
By B.C. Manion
Backers and opponents paint a very different picture of the future, if a campus for middle and high school students is allowed near the intersection of US 41 and Sunset Lane in Lutz.
Patti Girard, founder of Learning Gate Community School, a charter public school on Hanna Road with satellite space on North Florida Avenue, wants to offer the school’s brand of environmental education to students through grade 12, and to accommodate a larger enrollment.
To accomplish those goals, she proposes to build a new campus on a heavily forested 62-acre site that features freshwater marshes, open lakes and uplands.
The site is uniquely suited for the school’s educational mission, Girard said during a May 14 public hearing on the request before Zoning Hearing Master Steve Luce. The proposed Gates School will emphasize global awareness, arts and innovative thinking, technology and environmental sustainability, said Girard, who founded Learning Gate in 1983.
Learning Gate has received many awards for its educational and environmental programs. Recently, it was one of 78 schools nationwide named a Green Ribbon School, an award that acknowledges achievement in environmental excellence.
The proposed site would provide an ideal environmental framework to accomplish that mission, Girard said, also noting that it has diverse wildlife including owls, birds, tortoises, red-shouldered hawks, deer and Sherman fox squirrels. Another advantage is the parcel’s proximity to Nye Park, Girard added, noting her school would like to work out an agreement with Hillsborough County to use the park for physical education, in exchange for refurbishing the park.
While Girard paints the image of an idyllic setting for student learning, opponents foresee a very different picture.
They worry about the traffic a school for 1,000 students will generate. They foresee not only traffic jams, but also dangers posed by motorists turning into and out of entrances leading to the school off US 41 and Sunset Lane. They also cite the potential of area wells going dry because of the heavy demand the school will have for water.
Opponents also worry that the number of students and staff members on campus would overwhelm the school’s septic systems. They are concerned about the possibility of flooding due to runoff from the development. And, they complain about the project degrading their general quality of life.
About 50 people turned out to support the request for a special use permit to allow the campus and about 60 people showed up to oppose it.
The hearing master has until June 4 to issue his decision. His finding is final, unless it is appealed within 30 days to the county ‘s Land Use Appeals Board.
The county’s planning and growth management staff found the request can be approved, contingent on conditions to reduce potential impacts. Planning Commission staff found the request consistent with the county’s long-range plan.
Greg Pierce, who lives on Vandervort Road, spoke in support of Learning Gate’s request.
He said the school offers an excellent education, where kids have fun learning.
“This isn’t an average school,” Pierce said, noting he moved to Lutz, so his kids could attend the school He predicts area property values will go up because people will want to live near this new school.
Colleen Kruk of Sunset Manor, lives near the edge of the proposed school campus, and also supports the request.
“Not everybody in my community agrees with me,” Kruk was quick to point out. However, she added, “I think this school is a better alternative than having this property clear-cut.”
Kruk cherishes the pristine condition of the property and nominated it for purchase through the county’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. The property was rated excellent for its exceptional habitat.
She envisioned the county acquiring the land to extend Nye Park to US 41. The county, however, couldn’t afford the property.
“I think the school will be an asset to Lutz,” Kruk said, noting she thinks the use is far preferable to other types of development that could occur there.
However, Kruk said, the county needs to address the project’s traffic. Other residents near Sunset Lane agreed.
“I know danger when I see it,” said Mike White, a captain with Tampa Fire Rescue, who lives off Sunset Lane.
The campus would generate 2,517 trip ends daily, putting additional strain on the two-lane Sunset Lane, which had 31 accidents last year, according to figures from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, White said.
Complicating matters, Sunset is the only east-west through road in the area, so emergency crews use it to respond to calls, White said.
And, when an accident occurs on Sunset Lane, traffic backs up because there’s no alternative to get to Hanna Road or US 41, area residents said.
The project’s potential impact on water was another concern.
“Will you give us a new well, if it goes dry? Will you give us a new house, if it floods?” Gwen Hassinger asked.
Nearby residents also complained about the change in their quality of life.
Betty McGee and her husband, Gil, have lived two decades on a property approximately 100 feet from a road that would be built to access the school from US 41.
McGee was nearly in tears as she voiced concerns about cars. If the campus is allowed, McGee predicts cars leaking oil and motorists littering the road will replace the pristine beauty she enjoys. She envisions living with fumes and noise.
McGee and other neighbors said they don’t oppose the school, just its location.
Some neighbors questioned why a school that has been nationally acclaimed for its environmental accomplishments would want to destroy wetlands.
Kevin Mineer, a planner for Genesis Group – a consultant working on the school’s request – said the plan requires less than an acre of wetlands destruction for a road that was moved to minimize impacts on adjacent neighbors.
He said the school has far exceeded the county’s setback requirements and is preserving the vast majority of trees on the site.
Transportation experts hired by the school also explained beginning and ending times for classes will be staggered, with classes arriving and departing the campus at 15-minute intervals. Starting times will begin at peak morning traffic and dismissal times will end before the evening rush hour.
Girard also noted that the school is limiting its impacts on the environment by having several smaller buildings scattered on the site, instead of a single large building.
White said he understands why parents would support the school. “We understand that they want their children to go to a good school.”
But most of the students will be coming from the community from outside of Lutz, he and other speakers said.
“When they leave, they get to go home. We’re stuck with this.”
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