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Appeals court revives high school lawsuit

The suit should not have been dismissed so quickly, the court rules. "At least a substantial part of the merits will be heard,'' says the lawyer for neighbors of the proposed site.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


LUTZ -- A neighbors' lawsuit challenging plans for a high school on Lutz-Lake Fern Road has been revived by a state appeals court.

Wednesday's decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal did not address whether the neighbors have a good case. Instead, the three-judge panel ruled that Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno was too quick to dismiss their suit based only on a set of legal arguments.

The ruling was the third major setback inflicted this month on plans to build a high school at the southeast corner of Lutz-Lake Fern and N Dale Mabry Highway.

On June 6, the Hillsborough County School Board reallocated $33-million that had been reserved for the new high school. On June 13, the Hillsborough County Commission rezoned a vital corner of the high school site for a shopping center.

School administrators have said they're looking at alternative sites closer to the Suncoast Parkway, but have not abandoned the Lutz-Lake Fern site. First, they want to see how a pending burst of school construction will absorb this area's growth.

The site's neighbors, meanwhile, hope to settle their suit against the School Board.

"We're going to extend the olive branch and see if they really want to work with us," said Larry Padgett, a leader among the 23 plaintiffs in the case.

Padgett said he hopes to persuade School Superintendent Earl Lennard to change the rules on high-school site searches to let the public request a hearing before the County Commission on the suitability of a proposed high-school site.

Currently, such a hearing can be held only if the commission itself or the School Board requests it. Several county commissioners criticized the Lutz site, which was one of three approved on their behalf by an appointed land use hearing officer. But they decided not to get involved. So the choices went to the School Board, which made the final pick.

Padgett said he also hopes Lennard will abandon that choice.

"If Larry calls, I'll be very pleased to talk to him," Lennard said.

But Lennard repeated that the school system is interested in litigating the case to see whether the rules will be upheld.

Filed in October 1998, the lawsuit was dismissed in May 1999. The appeals court heard arguments in February and on Wednesday ordered the suit reinstated.

Attorneys for the county couldn't be reached for comment.

Marsha Rydberg, the neighbors' attorney, said the decision moves the case from procedural arguments to substantive ones if it isn't settled.

"At least a substantial part of the merits will be heard," she said.

Her suit contends that a high school at the Lutz-Lake Fern Road intersection would violate the school-siting rules and Hillsborough County's long-range growth plan. It also contends the siting rules, adopted in the midst of the Lutz controversy, represent an improper delegation by the County Commission of its authority.

A Lutz high school became a top priority in 1996 as crowding forced Gaither High School into double sessions. The new Sickles High added double sessions a year later.

When the Lutz search stalled, other solutions to the crowding were undertaken. A year from now, the double sessions are to end as a new high school opens in Town 'N Country and new classroom wings are added to Gaither and Sickles.

* * *

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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