tampabay.com

High school proposal falters for lack of agreement on roads

By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published February 22, 2007


Two months ago, county officials recommended a thumbs-up for a new high school in Hudson.

By Wednesday, they had changed their minds.

Now they say the new school is inconsistent with the county's blueprint for growth.

The dealbreaker: roads.

The county and the school district cannot agree on who should pay for $4.2-million in road improvements to Chicago Avenue, Canton Avenue, Little Road and the yet-to-be-built Cricket Street.

Things came to a head Jan. 25 when the district's lawyers told the county to make up its mind in 10 days.

County attorneys said no.

That was also roughly when schools Superintendent Heather Fiorentino and County Administrator John Gallagher broke off talks when they could not agree on how much each side should pay, county and district officials said.

Because of these events, the county's growth management staff this week said the county should not approve the school, unless the district has a plan to pay for road improvements.

If they cannot iron out their differences before the Development Review Committee meets today, the district plans to take its case to the elected officials.

"It is our intention to take this to the Board of County Commissioners ... if the committee votes it down," said assistant superintendent Ray Gadd.

Since September, district and county officials have been working to get a new high school to relieve the overcrowding in west Pasco schools.

The district is on the verge of closing on an $8-million site at State Road 52 and Chicago Avenue in Hudson but cannot move until commissioners sign off.

Along the way, they ran into residents who do not want the high school in their back yard, fearing noise and traffic tie-ups.

But the latest problem revives a longstanding argument for school and county officials: Who should pay for a school's impact on the local community?

The proposed road changes in Hudson include building Cricket Street, widening Chicago Avenue, adding and extending turn lanes along Chicago Avenue and installing a traffic signal at Little Road and Cricket Street.

"We were all in agreement on what type of road improvements (need to be made)," said Sam Steffey, the county's growth management administrator. "What none of us talked about was who would pay for it."

"We thought it would be determined at a higher level," he said, referring to Fiorentino's meeting with Gallagher.

Gadd said the district had offered to pay for more than half of the road improvements linked to the school site. The county was not willing to accept this, he said.

Steffey said his staff changed their recommendation, based on advice from the county attorney's office, because of new state rules that mandate having enough roads for population needs.

But County Attorney Robert Sumner said the new rules, in fact, do not affect this issue.

He said he would ask the committee today to revert to the original staff recommendation.

Sumner said, either way, the county's approval would hinge on reaching an agreement over the road improvements.

"It's not so much an issue of whether the determination is to be 'consistent with conditions to work out funding,' or 'inconsistent unless there is a funding plan,' " Sumner said. "It's both the same thing, really. We'll recommend to the (committee) to do it the (original) way."

But what made things harder for Sumner was the legal letter from the district demanding action within 10 days.

"It made it a little more difficult," he said. "Once we get a letter like that, we have to (respond). And the question becomes, who is going to blink first?"

Steffey, Sumner and Gadd all said they understood that a crucial meeting between Fiorentino and Gallagher had unraveled chances of resolving the impasse.

Fiorentino did not return a call for comment and Gallagher was not in the office Wednesday.

Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com.