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Debate continues on school locations

More than 18 months ago, school officials took a significant step in the search for a high school site in Lutz. They invited the community to Maniscalco Elementary School to discuss the five top locations.

Last week, school officials took another significant step. They invited the community to Maniscalco Elementary School to discuss the four top locations.

There may be a fifth by the time of the open house, from 5 to 8 p.m. May 14.

The meeting could be the public's only chance in Lutz to comment on the sites. Later, the sites are to be narrowed down by the Hillsborough County School Board and a land-use hearing officer, with public hearings in Tampa at both junctures.

On Thursday, a committee investigating sites chose four locations as finalists. Essentially, the committee picked two sites in western Lutz that have been discussed intensely this year and added two in eastern Lutz that caused firestorms more than a year ago and have been ignored since.

The potential fifth site involves land being packaged by developers who are suing Hillsborough County to develop a shopping mall at Van Dyke Road and N Dale Mabry Highway. The high school would sit just northeast of the shopping complex.

Although the Maniscalco meeting and the sites may sound like deja vu, much has changed about the Lutz high school situation in the intervening year and a half.

First, population growth has altered the school system's expansion plans. In 1996, the Lutz school was to relieve crowding at Gaither High School, which had just begun double sessions. Its secondary purpose was to pull students from as far south as Fletcher Avenue, to help out Wharton High.

Now, Sickles High in Citrus Park is headed for double sessions, and officials have concluded the Lutz school must be positioned to relieve Sickles as well as Gaither. To relieve Wharton, New Tampa will need a second high school of its own, they have decided.

Second, influence over school sites has spread from school administrators, who traditionally acted with relative autonomy, to land-use regulators.

Beginning with the Lutz search, new state laws have subjected the educators to a step-by-step dialogue with local planners. The laws also require that school sites be consistent with the local long-range land-use plan.

Early last year, school officials settled on a former chicken farm at Livingston Avenue and Max Smith Road as the high school site. Then the Hillsborough County Planning Commission stunned them by concluding that the location wasn't consistent with the long-range plan. It would bring major development to a semirural area with two-lane roads, commissioners said.

Afterward, officials spent much of last year drafting guidelines and procedures so the planners and educators could pursue sites together.

On Thursday, they agreed to dust off the 82-acre Max Smith Road location as a finalist. It likely would be the cheapest of the sites, at $1.9-million, and would affect the fewest wetlands.

"It has a great deal of land that's buildable," said Joe Trumbach, the school administrator coordinating the site search.

But Ray Chiaramonte, assistant executive director of the Planning Commission, reminded other committee members of the commission's opposition. "That wouldn't change," he said.

Another of the school system's early choices also made the list. It is 207 acres of citrus groves between Lakes Stemper and Hanna, immediately north of Maniscalco. It is big and scenic enough to accommodate two schools, or a park next to a high school. But it was promptly shelved in 1996 amid environmental worries and a swarm of neighborhood protests.

The newer sites include a 56-acre orange grove at N Dale Mabry and Lutz-Lake Fern Road. Of the finalists, Trumbach considers it the most centrally located to serve Lutz and the Sickles zone. It also poses the fewest transportation problems of the sites.

But the land sits squarely in the midst of a lake chain, and the idea has drawn heated criticism from established lakefront neighborhoods.

Last week, those neighbors scored a victory in persuading the site-selection committee to consider an alternate site off Van Dyke Road.

The 216-acre location, which straddles the Veterans Expressway, has few neighbors and has been the least controversial of any in Lutz.

But it would pose multiple challenges for development:

+ Besides a horse farm, most of the property consists of lakes and swamps.

+ The only obvious access point is under a Veterans overpass. State law encourages planners to give high schools a second access.

+ Van Dyke Road already carries more traffic than it was designed for, and the road isn't scheduled for widening. Thus, major developments along it may be banned.

A traffic consultant, studying the potential for 210 homes on the same property, said the opening of the Suncoast Parkway in 2001 should siphon enough traffic off Van Dyke to leave capacity for traffic in a subdivision. But Gene Boles, who heads the county planning department, said Thursday that a high school creates four times the impact on morning rush hour that a subdivision does.

John Cushing, who lives on Lake Wilson near the Lutz-Lake Fern Road site, said most of the problems on the Van Dyke site are solvable.

"This to me is really the best site, that offers the least negative impacts to local established neighborhoods," he told committee members Thursday. "Thank you very much for giving this a fair look-see."