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Land-use plan won't curb school crowding

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002

School Board member Marge Whaley wants to hold up Orange County as a model for planning.

Anybody sitting in the Orlando area's daily traffic jams knows this isn't a particularly strong example to emulate.

But Whaley is intrigued by the work of Mel Martinez, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and former head of the Orange County Commission. Martinez took on the Central Florida development interests a few years back when he proposed no more zoning changes allowing home building on agricultural and commercial land unless there was adequate space at the nearest public school for the influx of new students.

Whaley said this week she thinks the same idea could be used in Pasco County. Certainly, it's a worthwhile concept. But, it's no panacea.

The rule only applies to acreage being rezoned for residential use. It does not kick in for land upon which homes already are allowed. In Pasco County, that would mean the thousands upon thousands of homes planned for Connerton, LeDantec, Pruitt Ranch, Hilltop, Cannon Ranch, expansions of Meadow Pointe, future phases of Trinity and other already-approved developments could be built carte blanche.

So, in the immediate future this is a planning change that would keep the likes of Don Porter and Bud Bexley from developing their ranches unless school crowding is eased. How likely is that to happen? Porter sits on one of the advisory committees revamping the comprehensive land-use plan, is selling right of way for the extension of State Road 56, and just inked a deal with Pulte Homes. Bexley is donating the right of way for the planned Ridge Road extension.

It's difficult to imagine commissioners becoming adversaries to a pair of land owners key to an improved east-west road network in Pasco County.

Besides, there is a bigger political reality to consider. Would commissioners approve a radical land-planning change at the same time the family of Commissioner Ted Schrader is seeking to amend the comprehensive land-use plan as a precursor for turning their agricultural holdings into residential development?

Then there are applicability concerns. Ever notice how some commissioners become anxious about school crowding at politically opportune times?

For instance, conditions at Deer Park Elementary suddenly caused near hysteria last year when a developer sought to build apartments along Little Road. Too bad portable classrooms weren't the true issue. If they were, there would be a building moratorium already.

In this case, Commissioner Steve Simon reacted to the residents of River Crossing and Hunter's Ridge who voiced concerns the apartments had been designated as an affordable housing complex for moderate-income residents. (The state, incidentally, never approved financing for the project.)

The so-called Martinez plan shouldn't be a crutch to support political pandering and economic bigotry.

To Simon's credit, we must note he has been a longtime advocate of adding schools and law enforcement to the county's comprehensive land-use plan, meaning new development would have to meet the same concurrency requirements for cops and classrooms as it does for water, sewers and roads.

And the commission as a whole adopted school impact fees in 2001 to help education keep pace with demands from new growth, and is working in concert with the School Board on changes to the land-use plan. Such actions are commendable.

The Martinez plan also fails to take into account the phenomenon in west Pasco where younger families with school-age children are filling the modestly priced former retirement havens near the coast. It's one of the reasons why the school district is looking for land to build a new high school in northwest Pasco, possibly in Hudson, even though no new large developments have emerged there in years.

It's not the only new school on the horizon. The district is facing a $50-million shortfall on building schools over the next five years to handle an anticipated 10,000 new students. That still doesn't address the equivalent of nine elementary schools now housed in portable classrooms across the county. And the costs of reducing class sizes and offering prekindergarten universally, as required by voter-approved amendments to Florida's Constitution, could carry roughly $113-million in construction costs just in Pasco County.

Restrict future land rezonings? Fine, but it won't solve more immediate problems confronting overcrowded schools.

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