By B.C. Manion
The Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) is having a community meeting Feb. 28 to discuss the potential environmental impacts from a middle and high school planned near the intersection of US 41 and Sunset Lane in Lutz.
The meeting is scheduled from 6:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. in the cafeteria at Lutz Elementary School, 205 Fifth Ave. S.E.
Rick Garrity, the executive director of the EPC, called the meeting in response to considerable community input about a pending application to disrupt wetlands on the site.
Patti Girard, founder of Learning Gate Community School, wants to offer the charter school’s brand of environmental education to students through grade 12 and to accommodate a larger enrollment.
To make that happen, Girard wants to build a new campus on a heavily forested 62-acre site that features freshwater marshes, open lakes and uplands.
During public hearings for the school’s special-use permit, Girard said the site is uniquely suited for their educational mission because the new Gates School will emphasize global awareness, arts and innovative thinking, technology and environmental sustainability.
While Girard was touting the site for its ideal conditions, opponents were objecting to the potential negative impacts a school could have on its surroundings.
They raised concerns about increased traffic and destruction of wetlands. They voiced worries about potential flooding and negative impacts on nearby wells. They also questioned how such a large project could be built without public water and sewer services.
Opponents of the site have also challenged the issue in court.
The community meeting will be informal, Garrity said. Representatives from Gates School will have an opportunity to explain their plans, EPC representatives will discuss the potential environmental impacts, and members of the public will have a chance to ask questions and weigh in on the permit request.
The EPC has already given the project conceptual approval, said Mike Thompson, general manager of the EPC’s wetlands division.
That occurred after the county advised applicants for the school site that they would need to check with EPC before proceeding with the special-use permit, Thompson said.
The school’s request for the EPC permit relates to its plans to disrupt about 0.8 of an acre of wetlands in order to construct a road to create access to US 41, Thompson said.
An actual EPC permit has not been issued. That approval would be contingent on the applicant submitting a plan to mitigate its impacts on wetlands, Thompson said.
The process for approving the permit is administrative, Thompson said. If a permit is issued, it can be challenged by someone who has legal standing to determine whether it was properly issued.