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Wanted: 70 acres for school facilities

The School Board continues its difficult quest to find large tracts of developable land east of Lake Tarpon.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published June 22, 2004

Pinellas County school administrators are looking to build two schools and a 300-bus maintenance facility somewhere east of Lake Tarpon.

But developable land, scarce all over Pinellas, is virtually nonexistent in Oldsmar and East Lake. And after a potential solution recently fell through, administrators say they are back to square one.

"As the county's becoming more and more built out, it's getting more difficult," said Jim Miller, real property management director for the Pinellas County School District. "It's hard to find good land as big as we need."

School administrators are searching for up to 70 acres east of Lake Tarpon to satisfy the area's educational demands, Miller said. The district needs 15 to 25 acres for a bus maintenance facility, 20 to 25 acres for a middle school and 12 to 14 acres for an elementary school.

The schools aren't scheduled for construction, but the bus compound is long overdue, Miller said. Many buses that pick up and drop off students in Palm Harbor and Clearwater are serviced in the High Point area of Largo, an out-of-the-way trip with extra costs.

"This has been going on for a long time," Miller said. "But we're still working at it."

Most recently, school district officials inquired about a large strip between Tampa and Curlew roads east of the Lake Tarpon Outfall Canal. That land, which is vacant, is owned by the Southwest Florida Management District, or Swiftmud. Swiftmud manages the outfall canal.

"The school district has been proactive and land banked approximately 13 sites, mostly in north Pinellas County, comprising approximately 350 acres," Miller wrote in a May 19 letter to Swiftmud. "These sites will meet specific future needs. However, they are not satisfying the current need for a bus facility or a more centrally located middle or elementary school site."

Last week, Swiftmud officials responded by saying the majority of the land is already being used.

Fritz Musselmann, Swiftmud's director of land resources, said his agency is negotiating an agreement with Pinellas County that would allow it to use part of the land as a reclaimed water storage facility near the canal. Another parcel is being used for the city of Oldsmar's Canal Park. Much of what's left is wetlands or used for maintenance.

In total, "there are not sufficient suitable lands remaining for a facility requiring 12 to 25 acres," Musselmann wrote.

School officials failed twice last year to establish two bus compounds - one temporary, one permanent - after neighboring residents complained. In September, officials halted plans to build a maintenance facility on 21 acres at the southeast corner of Fisher Road and County Road 39 in Palm Harbor. School officials also nixed a proposal to construct a temporary facility at the corner of East Lake and Keystone roads after residents of Woodfield, Keystone Bluffs and Wentworth protested.

That 43-acre site is scheduled to be developed as a school, Miller said. Still, administrators hope to find an additional site closer to Oldsmar, as well as a home for the bus compound.

Parents and local officials in East Lake and Oldsmar have called for the construction of a new middle school for years. The city of Oldsmar looked into establishing its own charter middle school several years ago, but dropped the idea in favor of continuing to lobby the School Board for a new school.

But even one advocate for a new middle school in the area acknowledges that finding a suitable site will be tough.

"For a middle school in the city of Oldsmar, there are no options," said Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland. "I don't know where there is 25 acres in this city, not in one piece anyway."

Currently, the closest middle school is Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of children between the ages of 10 and 14 in Oldsmar in 2000 was 924, nearly double the figure in 1990.

In East Lake in 2000, there were 2,179 children between 10 and 14. The census bureau did not track the East Lake population in 1990.

"We have nothing offered to us in these areas that meet our total needs at this point," Miller said. "Price is always an issue, but we don't have that on the table even.

"We'll continue talking to everyone and anyone until we find a parcel."

- Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 771-4303 or asharockman@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 21, 2004, 22:14:06]


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