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Appeals board asks judge to clarify stand on school

Land Use Appeals Board members say the dispute over the First Baptist Church of Citrus Park project has dragged on too long.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

ODESSA -- Two years ago, First Baptist Church of Citrus Park purchased 41 acres off Gunn Highway as the future home for its growing Christian school and congregation.

Today, the site sits empty and Hillsborough County officials are still deciding what to allow there. Meanwhile, church members and project opponents are anxiously awaiting a final decision on whether the school is too big for the neighborhood and its environment.

The latest twist occurred Friday morning before the county's Land Use Appeals Board, where members were considering the church's application for the second time. The board first heard the case back in July 2001 when First Baptist appealed land use hearing Officer Margaret Tusing's decision denying its request for a 900-student school.

The board overturned that ruling. But that spawned more delays when Joyce and James Gills III, neighboring landowners, appealed the case in Hillsborough Circuit Court. They persuaded Judge James Arnold several months ago to send the case back, on grounds that the board had overstepped its powers by reweighing the evidence.

During Friday's hearing, members seemed no more satisfied with Tusing's decision. This time, however, they bounced the case back to Tusing with a long list of questions for clarification.

The vote was 5 to 0. Board members, arguing the case has dragged on too long, were able to get the case expedited to Tusing's Jan. 24 docket.

Tampa attorney Robert Williams, representing the Gillses, said the board had repeated its last mistake. Gills III, like his renowned father, Christian philanthropist James Gills of Tarpon Springs, is an eye surgeon.

"I think they reweighed the evidence again," Williams said.

However, board Chairman Steven Hedrick said Tusing either erred or was unclear on many points. "There is a justice issue," he said.

First Baptist wants to relocate its Citrus Park Christian School, which needs extra room to meet its growing enrollment, said Duane Milford, church member and project point man. Although the church needs only a special permit for the school, it also wants to move the entire congregation to the site by building a gym and 800-person sanctuary.

Frustrated by the legal delays, Milford said issues surrounding the expansion, such as the size of the septic tanks, could be resolved during permitting. In fact, the appeals board agreed with that reasoning back in 2001.

Sharply criticizing Tusing's ruling, the board asked her to justify five points in her decision:

How she determined the school would not serve the community.

How she determined the proposed septic system would not be adequate.

Why the project would not comply with the county's well field protection ordinance.

Why the project would not be compatible with development in Keystone.

Whether the proposal met lighting and long-range planning criteria for special use permits.

Opponents, once elated by Tusing's ruling, claim the proposed school is too big.

"We are against something mammoth sticking out of the ground, a danger to the environment, something that would change the character of the neighborhood," Keystone Civic Association President Rich Dugger said.

-- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone/Odessa, Citrus Park and the environment. He can be reached at 269-5314.

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