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Week in review

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

JURY AWARDS HUNTER'S GREEN FAMILY $11-MILLION: Three years after a jury sent a drunken driver to prison for causing an accident that killed one girl and disabled her sister, a jury said Friday that trees and bushes along a road were more to blame.

A Hillsborough Circuit Court jury ordered the developer and community association in charge of the landscaping near Hunter's Green to pay Tom and Debra Jackson about $11-million to cover the medical costs of their surviving daughter and to compensate for their losses.

Markborough Development Co., was 45 percent at fault, the Hunter's Green Community Association, which maintained the shrubbery, was 10 percent responsible; Harold Vann, the drunken driver, was assigned 45 percent of the blame, the jury found.

Debra Jackson cried as the verdict was read.

"They have honored our children and honored their lives," she said afterward. "Six totally objective people have exonerated me of any blame."

Her husband, Tom Jackson, a columnist for the Tampa Tribune, said he felt relieved the trial was over, but the wounds remain.

"Closure has become a word without real meaning to us," he said. "It may put an official end to what we've lived for the last four years ... but there's still a bedroom that will never be filled with Katie."

The Jacksons' 11-year-old daughter, Katherine, died in the Feb. 6, 1997, crash at the entrance of Hunter's Green, where they still live. Their then-7-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was permanently brain damaged.

The three-week trial in Hillsborough Circuit Court focused on landscaping planted in the median of Bruce B. Downs. The Jacksons said the developer planted the trees and shrubs incorrectly, creating a wall of foliage that blocked Debra Jackson from seeing an approaching vehicle.

Defense lawyers said they would consider an appeal. "It's always been a tragedy from the get go," said attorney Joel Adler, whose Miami-based firm represented both defendants. "We knew the emotional factor would be very tough for the jury to put aside."

Judge Ralph Steinberg also could move to reduce the amount.

CENSUS: HILLSBOROUGH IS BOOMING: Hillsborough fell just short of officially becoming Tampa Bay's first million-person county last April 1, according to population totals released by the U.S. Census Bureau. It likely passed that milestone a month later, said Jim Hosler, research director for the county's Planning Commission. As of April 1, the census' official counting day, the county's population was 998,948.

Hillsborough traded places with Pinellas County as Florida's fourth largest county, a change demographers think happened early in 1994.

Census numbers also showed that the numbers of Hispanics grew rapidly, up an estimated 68 percent to 179,692. That outpaced African-American growth in Hillsborough, making Hispanics the county's largest minority. In 1990, the two ethnic groups were virtually the same size.

The county's overall growth of 164,894 people during the 1990s was robust, but not record-breaking. It constituted a 19.8 percent increase, slower than the 23.5 percent jump recorded for Florida as a whole.

Census statistics also show that Hillsborough neighborhoods became less racially segregated during the 1990s. Of 249 census tracts, only four majority white tracts became more white. Only 71 tracts had populations that were 80 percent white or more, compared to 141 such tracts in 1990.

ON EDGE AT SICKLES HIGH: A telephone conversation between a 17-year-old sophomore at Sickles High School and his girlfriend, about a magazine article about school violence, resulted in overnight stays for both in a juvenile detention center. A neighbor who overheard part of their cordless phone conversation on a police scanner unwittingly set in motion the swirl of events. Hillsborough sheriff's deputies searched the boy's house before 6 a.m. Wednesday and arrested him and his 15-year-old girlfriend.

Authorities assert the teenagers said "they" would blow up the school, and spoke of using flares, gas and explosives. But neighbor Maureen Norbury, who overheard the call and alerted the authorities, doesn't remember the teenagers' conversation that way. She said Thursday that when she resisted describing the call the way sheriff's officials wanted, a deputy warned that she could be charged with making a false police report.

Deputies told the boy's mother he would be charged with making a bomb threat, a felony. The parents said deputies told the parents they were under "political pressure" to enforce a get-tough policy on bomb threats.

The students also face a two-year expulsion from school.

In court Thursday, County Judge Raul "Sonny" Palomino Jr., a former School Board member, asked whether students putting on a play about a bomb explosion could be charged with a crime. He released the teenagers to their parents under home detention.

At rallies, meanwhile, Sickles students called for an end to loose talk and rumors about possible violence.

"I don't know about you guys, but I'm sick and tired of having bomb threats every other day," junior Ryan Roeling told a packed auditorium as part of a "Not In My School" anti-violence program, planned in conjunction with the Family First Foundation.

JUDGE: NATURE LOVERS COUNTED IN NEW TAMPA: A Hillsborough judge ruled that a conservation group must count its cyclists, hikers, canoeists and outdoor enthusiasts living near a proposed golf community in New Tampa. Circuit Judge Greg Holder said Wednesday the Sierra Club must provide a list with its total members who reside within 5 miles of Grand Hampton. He also told the group to list the number who participate in specific outdoor activities.

Tampa Realty Associates Inc., a local subsidiary for Toll Brothers, which plans to build nearly 1,600 homes on 931 acres south of County Line Road and west of Bruce B. Downs, is seeking to prove that no one living near the future gated community will be adversely affected by the project.

The environmental group is suing the city of Tampa for approving the project last fall, saying it is not consistent with its comprehensive plan for growth..

The attorneys said Judge Holder has given the parties about a month to sort out the list.

BIDDING OVER PEBBLE CREEK: The city and county are in a bidding war over two of the fastest-growing communities: Pebble Creek and Cross Creek.

Soon after representatives from the communities inquired about the price of being annexed into Tampa, city and county officials began calculating what it might cost homeowners.

Pebble Creek and Cross Creek residents can expect to pay at least $200 and up to $252 or more in property and utility taxes if they are annexed, said Eric Johnson, Hillsborough's budget director. The New Tampa residents also would pay more for long distance phone calls, he said.

Johnson said residents could expect to pay up to $150 more in property tax, and up to $130 more in utility taxes, depending on where they live. They could expect to pay a 7 percent tax the city imposes on all long distance calls in Florida; the county does not charge for intrastate calls, he said.

Tampa and Hillsborough also are looking at Live Oak in unincorporated Hillsborough, another potential acquisition and source of revenue. Live Oak sits on 1,250 acres north of Pebble Creek.

Pebble Creek and Cross Creek are bordered on three sides by city property, and the addition of Live Oak would create an island of county property surrounded by city land. Annexed land must be contiguous with city land, according to state requirements.

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