By B.C. Manion
The fight continues about a proposed site in Lutz for a charter school for grades six through 12.
The Hillsborough County Land Use Appeals Board on Nov. 2 upheld a decision to grant a special use permit for the school, but opponents to that ruling vow they’ll take the case to court.
Land use hearing officer Steven Luce granted a special use permit to allow Gates School to locate on a heavily forested, 62-acre tract of land near the intersection of US 41 and Sunset Lane.
His decision came after a May 14 public hearing, where neighbors argued the proposed school was not a good fit for the site.
They objected to potential traffic and flood dangers, along with undesirable noise, litter and pollution from the project.
The school is being planned as an extension of Learning Gate Community School, which would allow it to increase enrollment and extend its brand of learning through high school.
At the May 14 public hearing, representatives for the school described the campus as one that would accommodate up to 1,000 middle and high school students. Their plan calls for several school buildings scattered about the campus for classrooms, a green house, administrative offices and an agricultural barn.
Two entrances to the school are planned, one from Sunset and the other off of US 41.
At the Nov. 2 appeals hearing, attorney Kathleen Fernandez challenged Luce’s decision to grant the special use permit. She found fault with his decision on numerous grounds.
For one, there’s no access to US 41 because the school has not executed an easement agreement to allow that to happen, Fernandez said. She also noted a lack of agreements regarding water supplies and sewer treatment for the school.
Fernandez argued that the school fails to comply with elements of the Lutz Community Plan, which is part of the Hillsborough Comprehensive Plan.
The community plan calls for schools in the area to have architecture similar to the Georgian Revival style of the Old Lutz Schoolhouse on US 41, Fernandez said.
“The ecological impact is of great concern to the neighbors,” Fernandez added.
James M. “Mike” White who filed the appeal, said the school would generate too much traffic on Sunset, a two-lane road that already has safety issues.
“It will bring that neighborhood to gridlock,” White said.
John Gibbons, an attorney representing the school, said that the record of the May 14 public hearing reveals the hearing officer was thorough in his approach.
“He deals with the environmental issues, the water issues. He deals with the transportation issues at length,” Gibbons said. The hearing officer added a condition aimed at lessening traffic impacts, the attorney noted.
Brian Grady, of the county’s development services, said many of the issues raised by the neighbors would have to be addressed during the site development stage. If the school fails to meet Hillsborough’s requirements, it will not be allowed to proceed, he said.
Richard Harrison, the chairman of the appeals board, questioned whether the issues raised about the Lutz Community Plan are required by the county’s land development code, or merely expressions of aspirations.
Senior assistant county attorney Louis Whitehead said the school’s request had been reviewed and deemed consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan.
Gibbons said the hearing officer did his job and his ruling should be upheld.
The appeals board voted 5-0 to uphold the land use hearing officer’s decision to grant the special use permit.
Betty McGee, who lives next to the proposed school site, was disappointed by the appeals board’s action.
“I just think it’s going to be overwhelming to the Lutz community,” McGee said.
White, who is the founder of the Lutz Citizens Coalition, said the appeals board’s decision was no surprise.
“This is exactly what we expected,” White said.
White vowed that the next step will be to take the issue to court: “This is far from over.”
Girard said she isn’t surprised by the opponents’ decision to fight the issue in court, however, she added the school will continue to pursue that site.