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Schools not keeping pace with growth

An Orange County commissioner thinks his no-rezoning plan for developers will help alleviate crowding.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


Orlando is growing so quickly that Orange County's schools cannot keep up. More than 8,000 new students crowded into the system last year. An elementary school that opened three years ago has filled all its classrooms and 16 portable buildings.

Last week Orange County Commission Chairman Mel Martinez proposed a solution that to him did not seem too radical: In an area where the schools are jammed, any developer who wants land rezoned to residential to allow new homes or apartments would be told, "No."

It is not a moratorium. Homes and apartments can be built in areas already zoned for residential uses. But builders and developers still reacted to the no-rezoning policy with horror, warning it would stifle growth and destroy the economy.

"There is a major trampling of property rights going on," fumed Doug Doudney, who needs a rezoning to build a 325-unit apartment project.

Doudney's project would be the first test of the proposal when his rezoning comes before the County Commission sometime in the next 90 days. In anticipation of being turned down, Doudney has hired an attorney.

The uproar has surprised Martinez. "It does seem like I've hit a bolt of lightning," he said. Nevertheless the father of three has promised to hang tough: "It's about the future of our children."

Martinez said he sees the irony of his timing, proposing his policy when the Legislature is debating whether to hand control over growth management back to local governments.

"This will either be a stroke for more local control or a poster child for more state control," he said.

Growth-management advocates hailed Martinez as courageous for coming up with a novel and unprecedented way to tackle an issue that has repeatedly stymied local officials: how to help Florida's schools keep pace with the state's growth.

"This is another cost of development that we have ignored for 30 years," said Terrell Arline, legal director of 1,000 Friends of Florida.

Florida law requires that when homes or businesses are built, the new roads, sewers and other public facilities to serve them would be ready. Schools are a different matter.

"School boards have historically refused to even think about land use and consequently have done a poor job of keeping up with growth," Arline said.

Pinellas County is so close to being built out that the schools are not falling as far behind as Orange. But Hillsborough officials meet regularly with school officials to talk about trying to catch up with growth.

Westchase Elementary is growing at a rate of one new student every day. Two high schools in booming northwest Hillsborough, Sickles and Gaither, are so crowded they are on double sessions. Benito Middle School, which opened in 1997, has 21 portable classrooms. Still, even that pales with Hunter's Green Elementary, which at one point had 34 portable classrooms.

No elected official in Hillsborough has suggested slowing growth in high-growth areas. However, Hillsborough school Superintendent Earl Lennard said, "If we agree that limiting growth is one way of catching up with the infrastructure then maybe we do need to look into limiting growth."

Pasco County is in similar straits. If Pasco imposed a no-rezoning policy like Orange County's, "that would mean we would never have another rezoning approved ever, because every school here is at 100 percent capacity or above," said Pasco Superintendent John Long.

Earlier this year, when the state Department of Community Affairs asked Floridians how to change growth rules, 84 percent said the state should make sure there is enough room in the schools before a development can go forward.

Some counties have tried to do that only to find their hands tied by the Legislature, according to Allen Watts, a Daytona Beach lawyer who has represented Volusia and Palm Beach County school boards in grappling with growth questions.

Last year lawmakers blocked counties from imposing impact fees on development to pay for new schools. Two years ago the Legislature set such stringent limits on how counties can apply growth-management limits to help the schools that "it's an all but impossible task," Watts said.

Broward County has tried twice to put schools on par with new roads and sewers in making sure they keep up with growth, and twice has failed. Palm Beach County recently saw a similar effort founder.

The Orange County approach dodges those legal hurdles by using zoning, Watts said. Counties have a well-established authority over zoning that would allow slowing development in areas where it might hurt the school system, he said.

Orange County has 142 schools to educate its 144,000 students. More than 85 percent of them are crowded, according to Superintendent Dennis Smith. The school system built four schools last year and plans to build 20 more in the next five years, he said, but it needs far more than that to stay even with the county's growth.

That is because about 20,000 new residents a year flood into Orange County -- so many that Martinez wants to 10-lane Interstate 4. During the past five years those new residents have added an average of 5,000 students a year to the school system.

To build houses and apartments to accommodate those new residents, developers frequently turn to the County Commission seeking to have commercial or agricultural land rezoned to residential. Forty times last year builders got a rezoning approved despite the fact that their project would put more children into a school that was packed.

That troubled Martinez. A Cuban immigrant, the commissioner was particularly concerned about the dropout rate among Hispanic children. He wondered how much of a role crowding plays in a host of education problems.

Martinez met with builders to discuss his no-rezoning idea. "They of course tried to persuade me this would be the end of the world," he said.

Developers have predicted the policy will ultimately drive them to build in neighboring counties, increasing traffic congestion and urban sprawl.

Doudney contends that is why he should be applauded for his proposed apartment complex: It fills a vacant lot in a run-down urban area, rather than pushing out into suburbia.

"All the planners said this was a great project," said Doudney, whose children go to private school. "But now the School Board is saying urban infill doesn't work and you've got to go out in the hinterlands and create sprawl."

- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

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