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Lawyers argue school site's pros, cons

After eight months of filings and motions, lawyers finally got to argue in court Monday about whether an elementary school should rise at Gunn Highway and N Mobley Road.

They disagreed on every point, even as they relied on the same agreement between the county and school district regarding new school locations.

John Thomas, representing the Keystone Civic Association, contended the County Commission improperly approved the school site based largely on what he deemed a failure to follow the accord.

One of his key arguments centered on the fact that the school district wants to build its school on a road, Gunn Highway, that already suffers from major congestion and cannot by county rule be expanded. The agreement, Thomas noted, states that new schools cannot be placed on sites that require roadway improvements beyond those already contemplated in the county capital improvement plan.

That alone should kill the school site, he said.

Assistant county attorney Deborah Blews and school district special counsel Richard Davis countered that commissioners, and the Planning Commission and zoning hearing officer before them, acted reasonably based on expert testimony.

Blews said the public had adequate time to argue its criticism of the county's evidence, and to make its opposition known. Even after hearing those positions, she said, commissioners found the school site complied with the comprehensive plan.

The county has the authority to issue construction conditions, Blews added.

Commissioners do not decide major zoning modifications based on road capacity issues, Davis said. Such matters should be considered at "the appropriate time," he said, explaining that concurrency reviews come much later in the process.

"No developer is required to meet concurrency standards at this phase," Davis said.

Thomas responded that the Legislature set rules in 2002 that put school placement under different, stricter standards. Only after lawmakers required counties and school districts to enter into planning agreements did Hillsborough do so, Thomas said, and the goal was to make the two local entities work closely together on growth issues.

The matter of concurrency is right in there, he said, as a subject to be contemplated upon choosing a school site _ not somewhere down the road.

"It's a March 2003 document, so there's not a track record we can look at and see how it was interpreted previously," Thomas said. "They're endeavoring to carve exceptions here that are not in the document."

Judge E. Lamar Battles asked a handful of questions for clarity during the two-hour hearing. He said he understood the importance of having an answer soon _ the school in question had been slated to open in 2006 _ and said he would render a decision as quickly as possible.

Superintendent Earl Lennard sat through the hearing. He said he attended because the case could have major implications for the district's future efforts to find school locations. Growing at about 7,500 students per year, the district needs dozens of new schools in the coming decade.

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