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New Lutz school site proposed

Hillsborough school administrators this week are reviving their drive to build a high school in Lutz, focusing on a more urban site than the one that ran afoul of planners last spring.

The school system plans to notify Lutz parents about the new site at Livingston and 150th avenues in notes sent home with students this week. The parents will be invited to a public meeting next week at Gaither High School.

Until the new school opens, Gaither remains on double sessions because of crowding.

Joe Trumbach, the administrator who has coordinated the site search for the Hillsborough County school district, said the new site is the only one among 22 locations that he seriously examined that is in an area designated as urban by local planners.

That's a crucial distinction. Last March, the Hillsborough County Planning Commission denounced the school system's chosen site at the time _ a former chicken farm about 2{ miles farther north on Livingston _ saying a high school there would bring urban-sprawl development into a semi-rural area.

The new site, about a half mile north of Bearss Avenue, is in an area designated for urban development and served by Tampa utility lines.

But building a high school there could be more complicated.

That section of Livingston already is well over capacity, backing up as much as a mile during the morning rush hour.

Plans to widen it to four lanes from two have been approved by local transportation planners at $13.7-million, but not funded. Thus a widening may be a decade away unless the Hillsborough County Commission rearranges its road priorities.

"The traffic concerns are of most importance," said Connie Schmitt, a leader in the Lutz Elementary School PTA, which supported the previous site. "When you have teenagers driving, that's always a big concern."

The new site also falls outside the area many people, including Schmitt's PTA, consider to be Lutz. She predicted a high school outside "Lutz proper" would not receive as much volunteer help as a more centrally located one.

Trumbach said the wooded, 95-acre site also has many environmentally protected elements. Wetlands fill some 20 acres along the eastern edge, and wildlife lives among the scrub oaks. Some of the land's live oaks are big enough to qualify for protection as "grand oaks," Trumbach said.

"We're having some engineers check that site very carefully," he said.

If a high school must be designed from scratch to accommodate such features, that will slow the process.

Trumbach began searching in earnest for a Lutz high school site 14 months ago, after voters approved a sales tax increase to finance the new high school. The Hillsborough School Board hoped to quickly buy land and reuse the design of Sickles High School to open a Lutz school in two years.

But progress bogged down when Trumbach encountered lake-dotted terrain and activist neighborhoods. After the setback from the Planning Commission, the School Board spent the summer negotiating a procedure with county planners for cooperatively evaluating school sites.