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Proposed high school has a booster

Clipboard in hand, Oscar Rawls has counted cars before sunrise. He has knocked on the doors of total strangers. It's for a good cause, he believes.

Rawls, a 73-year-old retired marketing executive, is focused on what may be the year's biggest decision affecting Lutz and Keystone: whether a high school can be built off Lutz-Lake Fern Road next to the Suncoast Parkway.

Rawls is for it.

He has counted traffic to prove Lutz-Lake Fern has room for more. He has knocked on doors seeking petition signatures supporting the school. Rawls believes Lutz is 80 percent for it, "or better."

"You walk up to any woman with kids, and they'll sign that thing in a heartbeat," he said.

Rawls expected far more opposition, and understandably so.

In the late 1990s, school officials sought a high school site in Lutz and encountered dozens of defiant neighbors at every location. The Hillsborough County School Board chose land at Lutz-Lake Fern and N Dale Mabry Highway, then the landowner sold a key part of it to a shopping-center developer.

But this site appears to be different. It's separated from the nearest homes by a large cypress swamp and Martinez Middle School. Leaders in VillaRosa, the nearest neighborhood, have voiced support.

A big test is a public meeting scheduled for 5-7 p.m. Jan. 19 at Martinez Middle School.

But in reality, the school system doesn't need the support of neighbors, except for those who would sell the land where the high school would go.

School officials do need the support of Hillsborough County planners. The land must be rezoned, and transportation planners must decide how much Lutz-Lake Fern needs to be widened before a high school can open there.

Jill Lemons, the school system's property manager, hopes to settle such questions during 2005 and buy the land. If the site is locked up by August, the school system will meet its goal of a two-year window for design and construction.

The school system has commissioned a traffic study, which hasn't been completed. The big question is whether the two-lane road can be sufficient if widened at a few major driveways, or must be four-laned for miles.

Lutz-Lake Fern, with an official capacity of 15,580 vehicles a day, already is carrying about 14,600 and is designated as needing to be four-laned.

But the county's transportation planning agency doesn't foresee money for such a project for 20 years, thanks to other roads where the need is worse.

Based on his morning counts, Rawls thinks Lutz-Lake Fern can handle a high school without too much fuss.

On three mornings in early October, Rawls parked under the Suncoast Parkway overpass and counted vehicles between 6:55 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. The heaviest traffic, on a Wednesday, was 10 cars a minute.

There were moments of quiet.

"They came in spurts: three, four, five at a time," Rawls said.

Rawls saw no problems other than the daily backup at McKitrick Elementary School, which spills onto Lutz-Lake Fern. There, 12-15 vehicles were lined up, Rawls said.

The school system hopes to move those backups off the road and into McKitrick's parking lot by the end of the year. Longer term, officials hope to coordinate traffic solutions for McKitrick, the high school and Martinez Middle School, which is on McKitrick's northern border.

"We will look at the evolution of a master plan for all three schools instead of the high school standing alone," Lemons said.

Based on his petition drive, Rawls believes most people in Lutz aren't worried about such details. Many he encountered wanted to support a Lutz high school without asking where it would go.

Rawls brandished the clipboard.

"I have grandmothers snatch this thing out of my hand to sign it," Rawls said. "People are not that much concerned about Lutz-Lake Fern being widened. They want a high school."

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coatssptimes.com.

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