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Jam-up on road stymies plans for new school

In a project it judges "most critical," the Pasco County school district is rushing to buy land for another elementary school to soak up the thousands of suburban students flooding the New Tampa/Wesley Chapel area.

But opening that critical new elementary school in the Meadow Pointe neighborhood by August 2006 requires a meeting of minds between school officials and Meadow Pointe developer Don Buck. So far, those minds are separated by a chasm.

Buck has offered to sell land for the school but balks at suggestions he spend more than $1-million to build a road to that school. As for the school district, it can't afford to splurge for asphalt with elementaries already costing $10-million apiece.

"It's not even a consideration. We're not road builders; we're educators," said John Petrashek, school district director of new construction.

Nearly everyone agrees Wesley Chapel is desperate for new elementary schools. Sand Pine, which serves Meadow Pointe from its campus on County Line Road, counts 964 students in a school built for 689.

Even worse is the crowding at Wesley Chapel Elementary on Wells Road. The school, which opened in 2002 with a capacity of 724, registered 1,356 kids this fall.

Relief for Wesley Chapel Elementary arrives next year in the form of a new 750-student elementary in the Seven Oaks neighborhood north of State Road 56.

That will leave Sand Pine, which opened in 1998, the most crowded. The district's solution was to build an elementary on 15 acres about a mile north of Beardsley Drive.

It's in an undeveloped section of Meadow Pointe not slated for home construction for another couple of years. But once the homes are built, the school would directly serve a high-density residential area.

"I have two elementaries that are almost at double session capacity," district planning director Mike Rapp said. "In my opinion the Meadow Pointe site is the most critical school site we need to acquire."

Buck is legally obligated to provide a school site for an estimated 4,000 homes in Meadow Pointe III and IV, the newer sections of his development under construction east and north of Meadow Pointe and Meadow Pointe II.

His zoning agreement with the county also forces him to build a road near the school site "when necessary to serve development." The school district contends a school fits the definition of "development." Buck, however, doesn't want to build a road years ahead of his home construction schedule.

Ray Gadd, the school district official who has dealt with Buck, expressed impatience with extended negotiations that could ruin his construction schedule.

To open the school for the 2006 fall term, the district needs land in hand by May. Elementaries take at least 10 months to build and furnish.

"Right now that site does not meet our construction schedule," Gadd said. "If we can't have road access then I need a viable site I can get to."

Buck couldn't be reached for comment despite two calls to his office. But he shared his opinion of the school dispute in an Aug. 25 letter to County Administrator John Gallagher reviewed by the Times.

To break the impasse, Gadd has resorted to playing hardball. He's asking the county to freeze approval of Buck's construction plans until a school site is solidified.

He's combed maps of Meadow Pointe and picked out five or six parcels he finds acceptable for an elementary. The next move is Buck's.

"I can't wait three years for a school," Gadd said.