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A Times Editorial

Developer's haggling over school site unwise

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

A dispute between a private developer and the public school district means a new elementary school may be built miles from where it is most needed while simultaneously taking youth sports fields away from the burgeoning central Pasco community.

The poker game needs to end. Quickly.

Devco, developers of Oakstead north of State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes, and the school district are haggling over the price of land required to build a much-needed elementary school. Two of the three elementary schools in the vicinity are jammed beyond capacity.

The district said it would pay up to $20,000 an acre. Devco wants $22,500. At least both sides have come off their original positions. A Devco appraisal said the land was worth $35,000 an acre while a county appraisal suggested a per-acre price of $14,000 to $15,000.

But, Superintendent John Long played his ace card this week: Absent a quick resolution, the school district will abandon the Oakstead site and instead build its next elementary school on land it owns on Parkway Boulevard, across the street from Pine View Middle School.

The solution is problematic. The land is several miles north of the SR 54 growth corridor, meaning higher transportation costs to bus students can be expected. The land also doubles as practice fields for the Central Pasco United Soccer Association, guaranteeing five-nights-a-week use from October to late February.

Pasco County said previously it would try to buy the land to preserve the soccer space while giving the district cash to acquire a school site elsewhere. That tentative agreement now is in limbo.

Expediency is Long's motivation. The school needs to open for the 2003 school year and contractors want a 13-month construction schedule.

The fighting is odd at this late date. Oakstead set aside 15 acres for a school in its 1,200-home community, a caveat that allows builders to tout the close proximity of an elementary school to potential buyers.

The district is seeking to forgo that land, and instead acquire 29 acres to have enough room for a middle school also. Devco could use the original site for community/commercial use -- likely an RV and boat storage park.

But, Devco wants a per-acre price as if the land would be developed as residential, as well as permission from Pasco County to move the 75 home sites. That allows the developer to keep its density at 1,200 homes even though no houses would be built on the 28 acres the district wants to buy. The county should rebuke this greedy gambit.

Devco should reconsider the wisdom of its hard-line negotiations. It stands to lose a neighborhood elementary school, making its development less desirable to families with young children who won't be eager to have their children bused several miles along SR 54, U.S. 41 and School Road to Sanders Elementary.

Certainly, builders may seek to negotiate lower per-home-site prices if the promised amenity of a new school fails to materialize.

The 1999 rezoning for Oakstead brought environmental protests and a challenge to the county's comprehensive land-use plan. Imagine the public relations fallout if Devco is blamed for the loss of a highly coveted community asset -- youth recreation space.

Understandably, private-sector motivations are geared to the bottom line. But they shouldn't supersede public interests in order to fatten the profit margin.

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