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Keystone neighbors bond before move-in

Michelle Janssen hasn't met many of her neighbors since moving into the upscale Highland Park subdivision in 2004.

She has simply been too busy, with two small children to look after. Besides, so few folks live in the neighborhood, which eventually will become home to about 400 families, that the occupied homes have "private residence" signs out front. That way, visitors don't confuse them with display models across the street.

"I don't know if I like being one of the first homeowners," Janssen said. "You feel like you're in a ghost town."

But many who have yet to move in have taken steps to create a community while their houses are still rising from the dirt on Race Track Road, just outside Westchase. Through e-mail, cell phones and meetings, the neighbors-to-be have come together to discuss a proposed elementary school in their future midst.

Now they're circulating a petition to create a resident advisory board. It would represent homeowners' views on such issues as the school until a true homeowners association could form, after the developer sells the vast majority of Highland Park. That could be years in the offing.

The board's main function, according to the document circulating, would be school-related. Primary objectives are to ensure that any Highland Park campus would be "minimally disruptive" and "appropriately sized." As other matters arise, it would expand its focus.

"We need to have an organized body that can speak for the group," said organizer Ryan Lund, a Westchase resident who expects to be living in Highland Park by the end of February. "That's the only chance we have to help form the community."

Many people with contracts for homes share a concern that the developer has not consulted them on critical matters of how the subdivision will look and feel long after the builders have left, Lund said. When they turn to the School Board for information about the proposed school, he added, the reaction is inadequate.

"We have a strong interest in seeing that our concerns are heard," Lund said.

In sharing such views, the ties that bind have begun to form.

"It's interesting," said Dean Kent, another future homeowner who is organizing the advisory board. "Because of this, we know almost every one of our neighbors."

Kent participates frequently on an Internet message board that several homeowners have joined to discuss school-related matters. He said his Rolodex of cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses has grown, and a day rarely passes that he does not communicate with one of his future neighbors.

With faces attached to names, Lund said, he now frequently recognizes other Highland Park buyers in other parts of town.

"The community is already forming before we move in," he said.

Yet the nature of the bonds has left some homeowners cold.

Greg DiCara counts himself as one of the few incoming neighbors who wholly supports an elementary school in Highland Park. While others complain about possible problems with traffic and noise, DiCara argues that a school would help make the subdivision the "better place" its advertising proclaims.

As a result, he said, "I'm not getting to know anyone. I feel intimidated to get to know anyone because (the school) is such a big part of the neighborhood."

It's a different story when visiting the home sites, DiCara said, because people talk about the exciting promise of a new home in a new area.

"But as soon as you get into the (school-related) meetings, it gets so negative," he said.

So his contact with other residents has been limited. But he hopes once the school matter is settled, tensions will ease.

"I'm sure as we meet people, we'll all forget about it," he said.

Janssen, who actually lives in Highland Park, said she had not gotten too involved with the school debate. She figured that's partly why she and her husband, Jason, have not met as many people as those who are passionate about it.

She looked forward to having more people move in, so they also can get to know more neighbors without the swirl of debate. Several homes are slated to close in the coming weeks.

Lund said he is reaching out to every current and future homeowner, regardless of views on the school, to support the advisory board. Already, he said, response has been largely positive.

He stressed that the notion that people are opposed to a school is "patently false," and said the issue does not have to be a divider. Nearly everyone wants some form of a school, he said.

"There's not opposition to a school. There's opposition to the wrong school," Lund said.

The homeowners don't necessarily have the answers to all their concerns and questions, he readily admitted. They just don't want to be steamrolled as others make the decisions.

"We want to be informed and included," Lund said, noting that the group includes professionals who are paying anywhere from $200,000 to $2-million for their homes. "We really are intent on helping to form the community."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (813) 269-5304 or