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College's noisy birth upsetting neighbors

Nobody needs an alarm clock on the north side of 91st Terrace N near Seminole.

The beep-beep-beep of construction vehicles wakes the neighborhood about 6:30 every weekday morning.

If someone happens to sleep through it, the noise returns like a snooze alarm, over and over and over throughout the day. The worst part is, the neighbors cannot shut it off.

For the past few months, construction crews have been tearing down citrus trees and leveling the earth behind the residents' narrow back yards to make room for the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg Junior College.

"Ask me how many times I've slept in," said Pauline Jordan, a retiree who likes to do so. "None. You're up when the trucks go through."

Community leaders say the campus is one of the best things ever to happen to Seminole. Jordan and her neighbors agree it's good for the community.

But when she hears people say good things about it, Jordan said, she cannot help thinking, "They don't live here."

The residents say they have been overrun by rats and armadillos since construction began in August. As workers cleared the citrus groves, the critters scurried into the neighbors' back yards.

As machines leveled the ground, vibrations rattled walls and windows. And the dust from the construction site floated into their pools and homes, keeping most of them from opening their windows _ even on crisp, fall days.

The question lingering in their minds now is whether the worst is over or yet to come.

When the construction is finished, probably in June, the property will contain a road, a 240-car parking lot and a building for classrooms and computer stations. When classes begin in August, about 250 students are expected to attend.

At its closest point, the road will be 60 feet away from the residents' property lines, said Susan Reiter, director of facilities planning for the college. The building will be 300 feet away at its closest point.

"I think it's a nice idea for the community," said Cecilia Butkus. "What I'm concerned about is parking lot lights shining into my back yard and my bedroom window."

Charlotte Eck, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, says her grandson jokes about enrolling at SPJC and hopping her back fence to get to classes. She is not amused.

"None of us are against the idea of education," Eck said. "It's just . . . I'm going to have a parking lot in my back yard."

The college is trying to be a good neighbor. Plans have been made to put a wooden fence between the property lines to block noise, car lights and animals.

The college also intends to find just the right lights for the parking lot: lights that will shine directly down, rather than out toward the neighborhood.

"The best thing we can do is work jointly and cooperatively to mitigate (the impact)," Reiter said. "They would like to see (the property) undisturbed forever. Well, that's just not going to happen."

The residents had known for years that SPJC owned the 102 acres behind their homes. And they knew the college would put a campus there someday. They just did not think it would be so close.

"We all just kind of assumed it would be at the other end (of the property)," Butkus said.

An eagle's nest and wetlands forced the college to build close to the neighborhood, off of Ridge Road, instead of near 102nd Avenue, Reiter said.

College officials tried to keep residents informed by talking about plans at Seminole City Council meetings. But the residents of 91st Terrace N live in unincorporated Pinellas and never attended the meetings.

The neighbors were irate when the first bulldozers arrived, said Tami Smyrski.

But now, "everybody is resigned to the fact that we can't do a damn thing about it," she said.

As a front-end loader moved dirt behind their home one day, Harold and Pauline Jordan griped about the noise, the dust and the loss of the view they have cherished since they bought their house in 1970.

"We've had 27 years of tropical paradise," Harold said. "When the orange trees were in blossom, you could sit here with the house open and it was nice. That's why (the construction) hurts us so much."

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