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Elementary plan stirs anxiety in neighbors

Residents oppose a proposal to build the school near the retiree-dominated Forestwood subdivision.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published June 9, 2003

PORT RICHEY - Change has been coming to the Forestwood subdivision for years. But this time, it plans to arrive on long yellow buses with book bags strapped to small backs.

Residents of Forestwood, a neatly manicured, 124-unit community, are giving the thumbs down to Pasco County school district plans to build a 725-student school targeted at relieving crowding at nearby Schrader, Fox Hollow, Calusa and Chasco elementary schools.

West Pasco needs a new elementary school and it needs one, well, "yesterday," said Mike Rapp, director of planning for the Pasco County school district. High density residential living in the Embassy and Regency Park areas have put school-sized space at a premium, and the 22-acre tract just south of St. Michael Catholic Church is one of the last acceptable places for the district to build, he said.

But the needs of an exploding school-aged population are butting heads with the desired lifestyle of the predominantly retirement-aged residents of Forestwood.

"We're not anti-children," said Lorraine Walo, 72, a Forestwood resident for the past three years. "We just don't want them using this street, that's all."

The street is Long Branch Drive, a short, bending, county-owned road that opens to Forestwood and stops where about 22 acres of brushy, green woods begin. That undeveloped section of land is owned by the Diocese of St. Petersburg and about 15 acres of it is desired by a rapidly growing school district, one scrambling to replace portable classrooms with their more permanent counterparts.

"If we cannot reach an agreement on this site, I honestly don't know where I'm going to turn next," said Rapp, the administrator who is trying to secure land for three schools he hopes could open across the county by, at the earliest, the fall of 2004.

District will keep most traffic away

Though the school is still only a proposal, Rapp has met numerous times with Evan Rich, president of the Forestwood Homeowners Association, to answer questions and respond to the community's concerns.

In answer to objections about traffic on Long Branch Drive, the district conceded to have the school's main entrance open only to Gulf Highlands Drive, a street that runs perpendicular to U.S. 19. Under the scenario, only service and emergency vehicles would come to the school via Long Branch Drive.

The district scrapped early discussions about connecting Long Branch and Gulf Highlands, an idea even more distasteful to Forestwood residents.

The homeowners group isn't satisfied.

"Hey, emergency vehicles and everything can go in that way," said Helene Pignataro, pointing at a strip of undeveloped land that runs parallel to Long Branch Drive - land beyond a chain-link fence, on the other side of the community pool where Pignataro was lounging with her husband and grandchildren recently. "Why do they have to come in here?"

Rapp said the district has considered other entry points, but the land conditions wouldn't permit good, safe access.

"Right now, we're talking only delivery vehicles - a truck or two a couple of times a day," Rapp said. "That second access is so essential to the safety of the students and staff there . . . It's not that there's a group of people out there that we'd like to irritate."

Subdivision once offered more privacy, open space

Listen to Forestwood homeowners a little longer, and it becomes clear their objection to the school is more than just an objection to delivery trucks rolling through their neighborhood.

Once a month, about 40 or so Forestwood homeowners leave the cool of their homes and converge on their clubhouse to take care of community business. They meet at the nearby pool, exchange jokes and stories, and then go inside where five ceiling fans spin, folding chairs fill up and a wooden gavel punctuates the reading of the minutes, the Pledge of Allegiance, talk of lawn-fallen citrus fruit and, now, the school plans they wish would just disappear.

Shirley McCracken, 66, moved into Forestwood when it was first built, in 1986. It was surrounded by trees and quiet, she said. That's what she wanted.

Then, change started: a strip shopping center north of the community, a retirement home to the east and, most recently, an 80-unit condominium complex that is being pounded into existence just across La Madera Blvd.

"You just kind of feel you're being hemmed in a bit," McCracken said with a chuckle. "That's progress, they tell me."

Older community fears shift to younger families

The disagreement is, in some ways, a reflection of a larger demographic shift at work in west Pasco County.

Forestwood is one of many communities in this area that, for years, have been inhabited predominantly by retirees. Though it isn't restricted to residents ages 55 and older, Rich, 75, said it's pretty much turned out that way.

Over time, as retiree-owned homes began going up for sale, they became attractive to younger families and the close-knit retirement communities of yesterday became increasingly populated with school-aged children.

"They are ideal retirement homes and are ideal starter homes," Rapp said. "They're attractive, they're relatively inexpensive to maintain. It's the perfect home environment for mom, dad and two or three children."

It's a change Rich and property manager Doug Moneypenny said they don't want to experience within the boundaries of Forestwood.

"As soon as a school is announced, someone with a 2-year-old will move in. You will see a definite change in the structure of the community. . . . All these yards will have swing sets," Moneypenny said. Talk of the new school sparked renewed conversation of restricting Forestwood to a 55-plus living situation last month. But the homeowners association tabled the motion amid objections from members who said they worried it would limit their resale options, Rich and Moneypenny said.

Among the maps Rapp keeps in his office, on his computer or imprinted in his mind's eye, is a student population map speckled with red dots. Every dot equals a school-aged child, and the area just west and south of Forestwood is plastered in red clumps.

"This is not a new situation," Rapp said. "This is a rapidly changing county. There are areas where I once rode horses that are now wall to wall houses. There are lakes where I used to fish that don't even exist anymore."

Though the percentage of children ages 5 to 19 making up the Pasco County population stayed at 16.4 from 1980 to 2002, their numbers have almost doubled in that time from 31,283 to 59,455, according to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.

School district unlikely to change plans for school

Rapp and Steve Zientek, manager of real estate planning for the diocese, have a meeting planned June 10, at which time Rapp said he hopes to firm up the exchange in anticipation of bringing the purchase to the Pasco County school board for finalization.

Rapp would not disclose the amount of the offer the district made to the the diocese.

While Forestwood residents discuss plans to erect a tall fence to shield their pool view from what may soon be playing fields for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, Rapp and other school district officials will be discussing how they can continue to meet the needs of the third-fastest growing district in the state.

While some try to escape change, Rapp's job is to manage it. He said he hopes the school system's dialogue and openness will help the residents of Forestwood.

As Rich frankly told those gathered at the monthly homeowner's meeting, the outcome is almost certain. Despite letters to their elected officials and meetings with Rapp, he said, "It would appear from everything that Doug and I have heard that this elementary is going to become a reality."

- Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanello@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 9, 2003, 02:03:18]


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