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Growth law threat to schools

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The same rapid growth that obliged Pinellas County to build seven schools in the last five years may require that officials scrap plans for other schools set to be built along crowded roadways. A provision of Florida's growth management law prohibits development where services such as water pipes, sewer hookups and sanitation are inadequate to support new construction. The law bans new development along overly congested roadways.

School districts in other Florida counties have argued that they are exempt from the growth management law because they respond to growth rather than fuel it. But state officials have maintained that county school boards must abide by the growth law just like everybody else.

Pinellas school officials became concerned about the growth management law recently when a survey showed that a proposed elementary school in Largo was on East Bay Drive, a county roadway that is considered too congested to accommodate new construction.

The School Board also owns 21 acres of land at County Road 39 and U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor where an elementary or middle school might be built, said Jim Miller, the board's director of property management.

But the growth management law has required that the county declare a virtual moratorium on new construction along U.S. 19, among the worst roads in Pinellas.

"It is my belief that we should not be subject to (the growth law) on transportation issues, since we are constructing our new schools in response to growth and have not created the traffic issues which you are attempting to resolve," Miller wrote in a recent letter to the county.

Pinellas County's comprehensive plan, which guides development, does not state explicitly whether a proposed school should be exempt from the requirements of growth management, said Al Navaroli, the county's development review manager.

However, the plan does take into account whether new construction would benefit county residents substantially, and whether it is consistent with the purpose of growth management.

"Something like a school would be interesting," Navaroli said, "especially if the school is needed."

Counties can get around a strict interpretation of the growth management act, portions of which took effect Jan. 1, by requiring that builders pay for improvements that would offset the undesirable effects of new construction, said Thomas G. Pelham, secretary of the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA). The DCA enforces the growth law.

"There's an interesting dilemma," Pelham said.

"Some local governments are taking the position that school boards are developers, just like other developers, and should have to wait or pay for themselves," Pelham said. "But school boards are upset by that. They say they are obviously responding to growth and are not ordinary developers."

"We do have a problem and it needs to be fixed."

At the root of the controversy, Pelham said, is the question of who pays to make the improvements.

The question is important, officials say, because neither local governments nor school boards wish to ask voters for more tax money in order to improve congested roads adjacent to proposed schools.

"Just who takes the heat for raising taxes to get the money?" Pelham asked.

"The situation has always been that local governments don't want to step on the School Board and vice versa," said Navaroli, the county official. "There's a sensitive issue: When a government entity deals with another government entity, they usually try not to cost one another money."