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Building of school surprises neighbors

As bulldozers knock down trees and plow over tortoise dens, residents say they didn't know about the construction.

By MONIQUE FIELDS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


As bulldozers knock down trees and plow over tortoise dens, residents say they didn't know about the construction.

CLEARWATER -- Next summer, Pinellas County Schools will open a new state-of-the-art facility for severely and profoundly handicapped students throughout the county.

The $13-million, 96,000-square-foot building will serve students ages 3 to 22, who have an IQ of 50 or less. It will have 25 rooms, each with its own bathroom, and enough space for wheelchairs and physical and occupational therapy equipment for its 236 students.

"It's not only bigger, but it's designed with this group in mind," said principal Virginia Wirt.

The new Paul B. Stephens Exceptional Center holds a lot of promise. But when construction on the building began last week, it only frustrated the school's neighbors.

The existing school of the same name nearby will be vacated. Concerns arose in the neighborhoods near Sall's Lake Park when the bulldozers and heavy machinery rolled into the property just beyond their back yards.

Trees were knocked down and hauled off. Bulldozers plowed over gopher tortoise dens.

Days later, residents learned the center and a dry retention pond were to built on the 71/2-acre site, raising fears that some residents' lawns would be a soggy mess after the project was finished.

"This building is huge," said Kathryn Cutting, a resident of nearby Forest Wood Estates. "All that runoff has to go some place."

The east side of the pond will be lined with plastic to prevent leaks, said Tony Rivas, director of the school district's facilities. But few residents have any knowledge of that precaution because they weren't notified of the district's plans before construction began.

The school district has apologized in writing for failing to notify residents of the building and scheduled a meeting with them at 6:45 p.m. today at the existing Paul B. Stephens school to answer their questions.

But residents are concerned much of the harm has already been done and their suggestions for improvement won't be heard.

Cutting, for example, said she would have suggested they save more trees and move a construction trailer, situated 12 feet from her property line, to another place on the property.

Residents say they are heartsick that more than a dozen 20- and 30-year-old trees were removed from the property, owned by Pinellas County Schools.

"There are hardly any green spots left in Pinellas," said Dennis Maranville of Clearwater. "Nature takes a back seat, I guess, to development."

The district has conserved trees where possible and will replace some of them, Rivas said.

Those that were removed provided a refuge for two dozen gopher tortoises, which are on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's species of special concern list, because their habitats are declining.

Developers have two options when they encounter the tortoises.

They can relocate them or leave them. Both options are controversial.

Leaving them on-site is dangerous, said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is also difficult to relocate them. Some have bacterial infections and can pass illnesses onto healthy tortoises. They also are likely to be moved to a refuge that can't handle more tortoises, placing them in direct competition with others for food and water.

The school district requested and received permission to leave the tortoises on the site and paid $21,958 in fees to help the commission buy land to protect gopher tortoises.

Still, residents were shocked to learn that as many as 25 tortoises could be buried alive.

"It just seems so cruel," said Lynne Knight, who lives across from Sall's Lake. "They shouldn't have driven over the top of them."

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