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    School's growth grates on neighbors

    Battle lines are drawn at parks, where residents ask Independent Day School students to leave and won't allow them to play ball.

    By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 19, 2002


    TAMPA -- Dale Swope could have built his dream house on the 4 acres he owned along Lake Thonotosassa. Instead, he bought a half-million-dollar home on Orange Grove Drive in Carrollwood.

    Swope wanted to send his two children to Independent Day School, an innovative academy along scenic Lake Lipsey. "The school is one of the major reasons we moved here," he said.

    A private school. A prestigious neighborhood. They would seem a perfect match.

    But while Swope is happy with the relationship, many of his neighbors in Original Carrollwood are not.

    The community's recreation district board says it will not renew a lease that lets IDS students play softball in one of its parks. Not long ago, the community manager asked a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy to force a busload of IDS students out of another park in the neighborhood.

    Residents now plan to plant an attractive, but vicious, vine called firethorn along a chain link fence guarding the community's largest park. While the planting is not aimed specifically at the school, it is indicative of this community's fierce desire to protect its resources.

    "I've seen other buses pull up (to the park) before," said Meg Jaap, the resident who reported the trespassing incident to the community's manager.

    "But this time the bus had the letters IDS on the side, and I knew it was inappropriate."

    A pastoral setting

    Moss covers the majestic oak trees, and peacocks and rabbits roam the landscape. William and Marilyn Gatlin fell in love with the area when shopping for a school site. So in 1968, the physician and his wife opened their school, where teachers could play guitar outdoors and children could climb trees.

    The school has always been innovative. Teachers avoid letter grades. Children are encouraged to learn at their own pace. There are several traditions, including an annual fundraiser to raise money for the Spring, a battered women's shelter. It is a way to teach charity and friendship to children whose tuition runs as high as $7,200 a year.

    Carrollwood was barely 10 years old when IDS opened. The school and the suburb grew up together, celebrating as the population grew.

    But growth eventually became a source of friction.

    The school outgrew its home and began buying residential land around it to expand. Neighbors opposed the rezonings, fearing students and parents would clog traffic on narrow, winding Orange Grove Drive.

    The trouble began when IDS built a middle school on 6 acres across the street. The school promised an attractive campus, but neighbors were less than thrilled with the industrial-style buildings that went up.

    Two years ago, IDS filed a special use application to build a 5,000-square-foot preschool and day care center on residential land. Residents opposed the project, and the school refiled the petition as a rezoning. Several times, IDS withdrew the petition, only to refile with a different strategy.

    The school won permission to create a parking lot instead of the preschool and day care center. As part of the deal, the school was supposed to build a left turn lane for cars heading south on Orange Grove to the main campus. It didn't.

    "Not only did they pull every legal trick in the book in trying to get the changes they wanted, they went on to ignore all the conditions (of the rezoning)," said Betsey Hapner, a lawyer for the community and president of the Carrollwood Civic Association.

    "And because of all the maneuvering, the residents had to go to the County Center time and again for hours each time," she said. "That certainly didn't cause them to have warm feelings towards IDS."

    Relations weren't any better in December, when IDS bought a home inside Original Carrollwood. The school called it faculty housing. Neighbors saw it as attempt to gain entree to their private parks and recreation center.

    Good neighbors

    Joyce Swarzman, IDS' head of school, insists the school is not using the house for such a purpose. "Our goal is always to be good neighbors," she said.

    As for the turn lane, Swarzman said the school has hired an engineering firm and is working out a traffic solution.

    During a meeting with tax board members last week, Swarzman invited them to visit the school. "We have a wonderful campus," she said.

    But she did little to answer the board's specific questions. The school's posture has angered leaders in this community of 935 homes, where homeowners pay extra taxes for their recreation center and three private parks.

    IDS, which is just outside the boundaries, uses Original Carrollwood's ballfields under a lease that the two sides entered five years ago. The school built the athletic facility and is to maintain it in exchange for playing rights. Teams and visitors are supposed to park at the school and walk to the games.

    But members of the recreation board said the school has failed to care for the ballfield, forcing them to pay others to mow and trim the grass and clean the clay. They say the school ignores their complaints about illegal parking. They say it took several requests for IDS to furnish proof of insurance for sporting events.

    On Aug. 2, a busload of students from IDS stopped to play in Scotty Cooper Park on Carrollwood Drive. Recreation manager Chuck Kim says he asked them to leave, enlisting a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy to follow him in case there was trouble.

    The group leader reloaded the students in the bus and left calmly, Kim said.

    Still, board members were clearly dissatisfied when they met last week to discuss whether to renew the ballfield lease, which expires in November.

    They confronted Swarzman with a stack of unanswered letters written during the past two years to her assistant, Pam Ripple. Swarzman responded that "Pam Ripple is a wonderful human being. She has been at the school for 24 years and she would do nothing to hurt the school."

    Unmoved, the board voted unanimously not to renew the lease. Members declined the invitation to visit the school.

    "I have no interest in coming to your school and talking to you," board member Mickey Jaap said. "I'm interested in seeing you comply with our requests and respond to our letters."

    Swarzman said she is not giving up. She said she plans to address all of the community's concerns in the next 10 days.

    "The outcome is yet to be finished," she said. "However it is resolved, hopefully it will be a win-win."

    -- Tim Grant can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or at grant@sptimes.com

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