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Debate rages over plan for charter school move

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


LUTZ -- With contrasting petitions and debate, Lutz residents dueled for two hours Friday over whether a unique charter school would be a blessing or a curse to the neighborhood around it.

Jamie Scarola, a Hillsborough County land use hearing officer, must decide in three weeks whether Learning Gate Charter School can move to Lutz from Forest Hills.

Opponents noted that the proposed school, at Hanna and Chapman roads, would bring up to 360 students into Hanna Road's morning rush hour. And it would inject an institution into a purely residential neighborhood.

"If I wanted to live across the street from a school, I would have bought across from the school," complained Laurie Deschamps.

But supporters said the school, which shapes its curriculum around environmentalism, would preserve the land's natural features far better than a subdivision of 20 or so houses, which could be built there if Scarola blocks the school.

Learning Gate proposes to preserve more than half of the 27-acre site, including a pond, weeds and 10 gopher tortoise burrows, and open it for hikers. The campus would consist of Cracker-style cottages of four classrooms apiece, scattered to fit among trees. Parking areas would be "geoweb" -- lattice-shaped blocks through which rainwater and grass can pass. The land would have a bird sanctuary, an organic garden and a nature trail.

"The charter school is not typical of other schools and should not be treated as if it were," said Bonnie Rubesha, a planner representing Learning Gate.

County planners disagreed how to treat it.

The county's Planning Commission decided Learning Gate didn't belong in the neighborhood.

"It's introducing a more non-residential feel to that area," said community planner Melissa Elliff. The commission noted that middle schools can't be built on neighborhood roads.

But Learning Gate responded that it's mostly an elementary school, kindergarten through eighth grade, with only one-sixth of its students in middle-school years. And the county's planning department said Hanna Road functions as a busy "collector" road rather than a neighborhood one.

The Lutz Civic Association, which had persuaded the Learning Gate planners to essentially hide the campus among the property's many trees, argued Friday that the parking lot should be modified to avoid backups onto Hanna. Rubesha said the school was willing to eliminate some spaces to accomplish that.

The association's treasurer, Carolyn Meeker, also argued that the lot should be moved farther out of sight of the road.

"We're trying to keep the commercial appearance and usage of this project to a minimum," Meeker said.

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

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