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Sinkhole site might become a school of sorts

(ran PW, PS editions)

The hole behind Hudson Elementary is a school in itself _ at least, according to a group of cave divers who hope to preserve it.

The National Speleological Society has approached the Pasco County School District about jointly buying from a local landowner about 5 acres surrounding School Sink, a sinkhole that connects to an extensive underground river system that flows beneath Beacon Woods subdivision.

If the $45,000 proposal goes through, the School Board would buy 3.75 acres and the Speleological Society's Cave Diving Section would buy 1 acre, with each acre coming in at $9,464. The School Board is set to vote on the plan today at 9:30 a.m.

"We're not looking to turn this into an amusement park or theme park," said Ken Hill, vice chairman of the nonprofit group.

On the contrary, Hill and local sinkhole diving expert Jill Heinerth said. They say the site would be useful for licensed divers to continue 30 years of research into the impact of above-ground activities on the area's water supply. The group plans to fence the site and restore the land surrounding it to a more natural state by removing and controling debris and trash.

"We like to keep cave access available," said Heinerth, Hudson-based producer of Water's Journey: The Hidden Rivers of Florida, a documentary currently airing nationally on PBS. Heinerth said the NSS's cave diving section is always looking to secure such areas.

Mike Rapp, planning director for the Pasco County school district, said officials more than two years ago toyed with the idea of buying the property behind Hudson Elementary to help increase transportation access to the back of the school.

The additional land could help relieve heavy traffic at the school's entrance, while also providing opportunities for future school expansion, if needed.

The current negotiated price is less than the $51,771 appraised value set by the Pasco County Property Appraiser's Office.

"It's just a good investment for the future," Rapp said.

The Speleological Society's Cave Diving Section already manages or owns land surrounding the Cathedral Sink and Cow Springs Sink in Suwannee County, and Mill Creek Sink in Alachua County.

Hill said the group approached the district about partnering because it could not afford to buy the entire piece of land surrounding School Sink from owners Russell Taylor and Linda Lee Lowe.

The group hopes to reach out to local schools to use School Sink as a teaching opportunity. Already, Heinerth makes a point of visiting schools to talk about the watery life below the ground.

"You never pay attention to what's below your feet," Hill said. "There's a whole world down there."