By B.C. Manion
More than 300 people turned out to a meeting called by the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) to weigh in on whether the agency should grant a wetlands impact permit for the proposed Gates School.
Patti Girard, founder of Learning Gate Community School, wants to offer the charter school’s brand of environmental education to students from sixth through 12th grade, at the proposed campus off Sunset Lane and US 41 in Lutz.
But the use of the 62-acre heavily forested site for a school has drawn a storm of controversy from residents living nearby. The site features freshwater marshes, open lakes and uplands.
While Girard has described the site as ideal for the brand of environmental education her charter school delivers, residents have raised objections to potential negative impacts it will have on the area.
Rick Garrity, executive director of the EPC, granted the school a conceptual approval of its plan to affect about 0.8 of an acre of wetlands to provide access to the school from US 41.
However, when the agency became aware of the intense community interest in the project, it declared the school a project of “heightened concern” and called a public meeting to gather input.
Matt Campo, of Campo Engineering, represented Gates at the meeting. He told the crowd the school is looking at pursuing a wood bridge to provide access. It is also considering creating wetlands on the site or purchasing wetlands from a wetlands bank to mitigate the wetlands it would disrupt.
The school has also talked to Hillsborough County about hooking into the water line on US 41 to provide public water to the site, Campo said. It is also considering the possibility of using a septic system or an on-site sewage treatment plant to treat the school’s waste, he said.
Scott Emery, director of the wetlands division for the EPC, told the audience “the application is still open. We are wanting information from you.”
Emery invited people to line up and express their views on if the agency should grant the wetlands permit. Twenty-five speakers weighed in, with just two offering support for the Gates application.
Those objecting to the proposed school site raised concerns about the destruction of wetlands it would cause and its potential negative effects on area wells. They also said they’re worried about an increased threat of flooding because of the site’s development.
Opponents also said traffic from the school would jam area roads and increase the potential for accidents. And, they expressed concerns about the ability of emergency vehicles to quickly access the site.
Pamela Jo Hatley, an attorney representing the Lutz Citizens Coalition, told EPC staffers that Gates has not demonstrated that the school is a reasonable use for the site.
“This is a classic case of a use that’s not suitable here,” Hatley said. “There are many ways this property could be used in a reasonable way.”
Mike White, president of the Lutz Citizens Coalition, said “alternative options have been and still are available to the school.”
Gil and Betty McGee, who live behind the proposed school site, voiced objections.
“Why this land?” Betty asked. Building the school there will create noise pollution and traffic, she said.
The site has an abundance of wildlife, Betty added. “We don’t want it destroyed.”
While just two speakers spoke on behalf of the Gates application, others in the crowd showed support to the school through their reactions to speaker remarks.
In one case, when a woman objected to the noise that would result from an outdoor amphitheater at the school, a woman in the crowd called out, “Singing kids — how terrible.”
Other speakers noted that the land is zoned for 60 single-family homes, which they would prefer.
James Duckworth, one of two speakers who supported the school’s application, observed that those 60 homes, like the school, would have impacts. He also noted that the people who live in the area already have had impacts on it.
Duckworth said he understands there are concerns, but he suggested the school and residents might be able to address them together.
“Maybe there is some common middle ground,” Duckworth said.
After the meeting, Duckworth said that other Gates supporters who were there might have felt uncomfortable speaking: “I think a lot of people didn’t stand up because they were intimidated.”
Emery told the audience the EPC will answer the questions raised at the meeting and will send out information to those who signed in at the meeting. It will also post information on the agency’s website.
The process for approving the permit is administrative. If the agency issues a permit, it can be challenged.
The Lutz Citizens Coalition already is in court about Hillsborough’s approval of the school’s conditional use permit.