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Residents take on proposed Lutz charter school for a third time

LUTZ — Homeowners near Sunset Lane have lost two rounds, but they haven't given up their fight to block a charter high school from going up on their busy road.

The Lutz Citizens Coalition plans to appeal a ruling that allows backers of GATES Senior High School to build on 62 acres just north of Sunset and east of U.S. 41, said Mike White, head of the group. An appeal is expected to be filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court in the coming days.

The residents mainly worry that school traffic at an entrance on Sunset Lane will cause bottlenecks on the two-lane road. The group contends that Hillsborough County zoning hearing officer Steve Luce violated the Lutz Community Plan, which is part of the county's land development code, by granting a special land use permit for the high school.

White said his group will ask a circuit judge to declare that the Lutz Community Plan isn't merely advisory, as he said the county's lawyer contended.

"Because the community plans are completely incorporated (into the county's master plan), they do indeed carry the full weight of law,'' White said.

School backers plan to go ahead with work on a preliminary site plan for GATES (an acronym for Global School of Arts, Technology and Environmental Sustainability). Patti Girard, executive director of Learning Gate Education Foundation, said her group had delayed doing much until Luce's ruling was affirmed Nov. 5 by the Land Use Appeals Board.

"We feel very confident that the hearing officer's ruling will be upheld,'' she said.

Learning Gate operates a K-6 school on Hanna Avenue and is leasing a building on U.S. 41 for grades 7 through 10. GATES High School is expected to eventually have 1,000 students in grades 7 through 12.

"Hopefully, we can get it started and be in there in 2014,'' Girard said.

In the hearing before Luce, Girard said the school will stagger the times when each grade begins and ends in order to ease the traffic burden on Sunset Lane, which she said will be used as a secondary entrance. The bulk of the traffic will be entering and exiting from six-lane U.S. 41, she said.

The school is currently "finishing up with the owners'' of the adjacent property to secure an easement for the entrance off U.S. 41, Girard said last week.

In his ruling, Luce said the Sunset Lane entrance should be designed to prevent eastbound motorists from turning north — across traffic — into the school, although motorists can turn left across traffic to exit the school.

Even with improvements, White said, the traffic will put too much of a burden on Sunset Lane, which "can't be widened, can't be changed.''

Kathleen Fernandez, an attorney for the Lutz Citizens Coalition, argued before the Land Use Appeals Board that Luce's actions went against the Lutz Community Plan in various ways, saying Luce did not personally inspect the property, and did not consider availability of public services or impact on surrounding land use and the environment.

She hopes the court will send the case back for a rehearing. Neighbors have become more familiar with the issue, have had more time to prepare, and may have more impact now, she said.

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

Residents take on proposed Lutz charter school for a third time 11/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 3:31am]
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