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When plans collide: schools vs. cars

(ran East edition)

People here are willing to complain about traffic anywhere. But in the last month, the attention of civic leaders and government transportation officials has become focused squarely on Lutz-Lake Fern Road.

There, a near-capacity 15,000 vehicles a day are on a collision course with a proposal for a new high school. Most people agree the road's morning crush could not absorb the school's additional traffic.

Moreover, traffic to McKitrick Elementary School already blocks Lutz-Lake Fern's westbound lane twice each weekday.

"If you get high-school drivers on Lutz-Lake Fern Road, that would not be happy," warned Janet Jordan, who lives in VillaRosa, next door to the school.

Yet the school proposal seems to be popular.

"I've heard nothing but positive," said Chris Langsan, the PTA president at McKitrick.

Denise Layne, president of the Lutz Civic Association, said, "I have heard no resident of Lutz, especially in that area, say they don't like the idea of a high school there."

But she added that everyone was concerned about the traffic.

"I think we need some transportation help there," Layne said.

A year ago, Layne formed the Lutz Transportation Task Force, chiefly amid concerns about the N Dale Mabry area. But the Lutz-Lake Fern issue forced the group Thursday night to divert its attention there.

The Hillsborough County School District unveiled the high school plans last month. The school would be built on up to 56 acres between the Suncoast Parkway and two existing schools, McKitrick Elementary and Martinez Middle School, forming the county's first triple campus.

MaryEllen Elia, the school system's chief facilities officer, told the task force Thursday that a traffic study is under way as part of her department's exploration of the site.

Major complications stand in the way of widening Lutz-Lake Fern.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's overall transportation planning agency, doesn't foresee money for such a project in the next 20 years, based on competing needs and the county's tax policies.

The Lutz Community Plan, a binding section of the county's land-use law, discourages road-widening as a threat to the county's rural atmosphere.

Beth Alden, representing the MPO, said her agency would list a Lutz-Lake Fern widening as an "unfunded need" if such language didn't appear to ban it.

"If we hear differently from you all, then the plan can be amended," Alden told the task force.

Ned Baier, manager of transportation planning for Hillsborough County, downplayed that obstacle. Baier said the County Attorney's Office had concluded the plan's language was "wishy-washy" and legally weak.

Also, the references tend to apply to rural roads. Lutz-Lake Fern was a rural road until the master-planned developments of Cheval, VillaRosa and Heritage Harbor sprang up along it. Today, the county government considers the corridor to be suburban.

Meanwhile, another section of the Lutz plan requires that high schools be located on roads of four or more lanes.

"You can change the road or you can change the plan," said Georgianne Ratliff, a planning consultant to the school system. Ratliff said school officials would prefer improving the road.

A county public works engineer said the McKitrick problem is caused by insufficient space on the campus for drivers to wait in line to pick up or drop off children. Thus, the line backs onto Lutz-Lake Fern. Gary Tait, the engineer, said he's encouraging the school to use its parking lot for such "stacking" instead of a shorter front loop.

Longer term, a shared triple campus would offer more opportunities for arranging stacking lanes, Tait said.

When McKitrick and Martinez were planned, Ratliff proposed a walking path connecting the schools to VillaRosa next door. But the path would have taken children through a gated neighborhood, and those homeowners protested. So VillaRosa's children reach the schools via Lutz-Lake Fern.

Tait said parents are increasingly inclined to drive their children to school rather than trust buses or sidewalks.

"It's a big problem that we have, trying to get these kids to walk," he said.

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