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Land-use ruling halts plan to move school

Baptist Church of Citrus Park now must decide what to do with the Gunn Highway property it had bought for the school.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


KEYSTONE -- After a disappointing ruling, the Baptist Church of Citrus Park now owns prime real estate off Gunn Highway without a clear plan for how to use it.

On April 27, Hillsborough County land use hearing officer Margaret Tusing deflated the congregation's hopes to move Citrus Park Christian School from its current location near Sickles High School 4.5 miles north to the sprawling rural property. The expanded 66,000-square-foot school would serve 900 students, while its athletes would enjoy lighted ballfields.

In her ruling, Tusing said the facility would add too many cars and people to an already congested section near the Austin Davis Library.

She also rejected the church's claim that the new K-12 school would serve Keystone's educational needs and cautioned that the school would sit close to a hunting club.

Building committee member Duane Milford said the church is still deciding how to respond to the denial.

After sending about 60 members to the April 6 hearing, far outnumbering Keystone opponents, the congregation thought it had provided enough evidence to satisfy Tusing.

The church argued Citrus Park Christian had outgrown its current facility at 7705 Gunn Highway. Its more than 600 students often use county sports fields, and the basketball team spent much of the season practicing outside.

Tusing's rejection is even more surprising, Milford said, because the Planning Commission and the Hillsborough County Department of Planning and Growth Management both recommended approval. But members are trying to stay positive.

"I went to church a little bit concerned, but to tell you the truth, I was impressed" with people's attitudes, he said. "There is a lot going on at the church, and I think people's attention is focused somewhere else.

"I thought for sure the next thing we would do is appeal this," he said. "But the church isn't flat out saying what we're going to do. Churches don't think like developers."

Under county regulations, the church has 30 days to appeal Tusing's decision to a seven-member citizens board.

The Keystone Civic Association had strongly opposed the project, saying the multi-use facility would upset Keystone's small-town atmosphere. The group's objections resonated with Tusing, who described the church's first proposal as inadequate but gave members a chance to come back with more information.

"Naturally . . . we're very pleased," said association president Steve Morris. "It was never an issue of religion. It never was an issue of being against the church. It was and is a land-use issue. I think (Tusing) basically addressed all the issues the community addressed. She's absolutely on the money.

"We wish Citrus Park the best of luck and hopefully they can find another location," he said. Tusing flatly rejected the church's responses to questions she raised at the hearing. In addition to her concerns about increased traffic and doubts that the new school would serve Keystone's needs, Tusing criticized the plan for not adequately protecting local water resources.

Tusing questioned a Planning and Growth Management formula used to determine how many students could be served under well field protection rules. County planners based their calculation on a residential equivalent of one house per acre. But Keystone's zoning allows only one house per five acres, she said, indicating only 106 students would be allowed legally.

Tusing also wrote that the school's proposed 10,000-gallon-per-day septic system would not be adequate for such a large school.

- Josh Zimmer can be reached at 813-226-3474.

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