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Planners postpone decision on Land O'Lakes charter school

LAND O'LAKES — The Imagine School has 424 students registered for the next school year and a waiting list of about 180, but it still can't get a green light for its building.

The county's top staff planners spent an hour Thursday debating the traffic concerns at the charter school's proposed 4-acre site at Morgan Road and U.S. 41 – but for the third time postponed a decision.

Imagine's location lies next to a CSX Corp. railroad and an often congested intersection.

The school is going to house its students at a temporary facility on State Road 54 and Ballantrae Boulevard, but its officials are so keen to start working on their permanent home that they were willing to post a $500,000 bond for a railroad crossing and traffic signals on U.S. 41 that county planners want.

The trouble is no one could guarantee CSX would agree to a crossing or that the state Department of Transportation would agree to the new signals.

"My client has tried to move at lightning speed," said Tim Hayes, Imagine's attorney. "But the killer conditions are in" the CSX and DOT-related conditions.

The railroad crossing has been in limbo for years.

Developer John "Hi" Sierra, who built the 147-home Sunset Lakes subdivision on Morgan Road, was supposed to get one installed. That agreement was never signed, Hayes said.

"The developer signed a check for $50,000 (for his share of the crossing), and that was it," Hayes told the Development Review Committee Thursday. "We want these improvements done. We are prepared to pay, but I cannot control CSX's outcome. … They are not prepared to say it's warranted."

Neither was DOT convinced the signals were warranted, though a representative, Susan Van Hoose, said Thursday the department is willing to consider the possibility.

But she warned it won't be so easy with CSX: "I've discussed it with my traffic experts who deal with the railroad, and they think it will be at least 18 months to get it through (CSX) — if we started today."

Hayes suggested DOT allow the signal to be activated only during peak hours and left as flashing amber lights otherwise. A similar situation existed at a Lutz charter school farther south on U.S. 41, he said.

Imagine's officials offered to pay a sheriff's deputy to control traffic during peak hours. Buses and carpooling would reduce congestion, they said.

But planners were not convinced. They want to check the traffic situation at some of Imagine's similarly sized schools; Imagine operates 51 schools in 11 states.

"I know you're trying to open for the next school year, but I'd like … to know the roads are not clogged up, the circulation of the buses is good, there's a good percentage of parents who carpool," said County Administrator John Gallagher.

Neighbors were divided.

Some, like Morgan Road resident Douglas McDowell, called the school "a traffic and gridlock danger."

But others, like Sunset Lakes representative Dave Rabon, were more open.

"We are somewhere in the middle," he said. "We know there's going to be something in there. … Many of us in Sunset Lakes will probably send our kids there. What we'd like to see is for staff to have something adequate to prepare (traffic safeguards). Some people say Sunset Lakes would be dead set against this. I don't think that's the case."

The committee voted to take the issue up again on July 24.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com or (813)909-4613.

Planners postpone decision on Land O'Lakes charter school 06/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2008 9:10pm]
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