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Decision may let school expand

An appeals board overturns a ruling prohibiting Citrus Park Christian School from building a larger school on Gunn Highway property.

JOSH ZIMMER
Published May 9, 2003

KEYSTONE - Once again, the Hillsborough County Land Use Appeals Board is saying yes to Citrus Park Baptist Church's proposed move to a 40-acre tract off Gunn Highway.

Of course, that does not mean an end to the controversy. So far in this three-year battle of development rights, no decision has gone unchallenged.

The latest turn came on May 2, when board members overturned the most recent ruling by Land Use Hearing Officer Margaret Tusing. Tusing had insisted that the church's proposal for a 900-student school was too intensive for the neighborhood and would not serve enough local students.

Using the same evidence that Tusing had employed, the board came to a completely different conclusion. In a 3-1 vote, members said the church should be allowed a special permit for its growing Citrus Park Christian School.

The vote was celebrated as a victory at the Baptist church and the affiliated Citrus Park Christian School, which occupy a crowded corner off Ehrlich Road in Citrus Park. The school, which enrolled close to 600 students last year, is bursting at its seams, said head pastor Ron Beck, who would like more room to expand.

More immediately, they plan to apply for permits to build a church activities center at the site.

"I am just excited about the possibility of going forward," Beck said. "We're pretty well jammed on that less-than-5 acres. We don't have any more room to add any more sections."

Growth opponents, led by the Keystone Civic Association, were not so pleased. Association president Rich Dugger called the decision misguided.

"The first time around was shocking," he said. "The second time around . . . to see them floundering about was appalling."

It's unclear yet how those opponents will respond. That may depend on James and Joyce Gills, who own 90 acres north of the church property and who challenged the board's first overturn in Hillsborough Circuit Court. Thirteen months later, Circuit Judge James Arnold ruled in the Gills' favor, saying the board went too far by reweighing the evidence.

The Gills haven't decided what to do, according to one of their attorneys, Robert Williams.

The appeals board used several arguments to refute Tusing's ruling.

Member Steve Hedrick challenged her definition of a rural community, which she had argued could not accommodate the expanding church and school. Her definition was based on a lack of development; Hedrick argued that schools often exist in agricultural areas.

Hedrick also countered the environmental concerns - Tampa Bay Water had pointed out there are no public water or wastewater lines at the site - on grounds that Tampa Bay is not a regulatory agency.

Member Louis Laracuente took aim at Tusing's opinion that the school would not serve enough local students.

Church officials provided data showing that 25 percent of the school's current students live within 5 miles of the church's Keystone property. While Tusing found that number insufficient to justify the school, Laracuente said he disagreed.

"Everybody agrees 25 percent is okay," he said. "She has a problem."

Laracuente also dismissed Tusing's complaint that the project would interfere with the Keystone-Odessa Community plan, which aims to protect the area's fading rural lifestyle. Citrus Park Baptist's application pre-dated the community plan, he argued.

Hedrick, Laracuente and Richard Albertson voted to overturn the decision. Rodney Wade wanted to let the decision stand.

- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone/Odessa, University North and Citrus Park. He can be reached at 269-5314 or zimmer@sptimes.com

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