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Field lights approval leaves Saint Stephen's, neighborhood split

BRADENTON — Bad feelings between residents of the neighborhood surrounding Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School and school officials may take some time to soothe after the school was given permission Wednesday to improve its athletic fields.

After listening to almost two hours of emotional comments from experts, school supporters and homeowners living near the private school, the City Council approved in a 4-1 vote the requested changes to a site plan.

Councilman Harold Byrd, the lone dissenting vote, tried to put to rest the animosity between the two sides.

“You have a beautiful neighborhood,” Byrd said, “I hope no matter what the decision, you can hold hands and go forward.”

But with one lawsuit filed and another court action possible, finding common ground may be a ways off.

After the council meeting, Biff Craine, the Tampa attorney the neighbors hired, said there was enough information on record regarding the inconsistencies with the comprehensive plan for a challenge to the decision.

“Compatibility is required by the comprehensive plan,” Craine said, “and I don’t believe (the changes) are compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.”

School officials were given permission to change the master site plan approved in 2008 to move the football field from the northern portion of the 35-acre campus into the interior and add lighting for night games.

The changes also included removal of several large oak trees and repositioning of the baseball and softball fields.

Many of the residents who spoke during the public hearing said their concerns are that the noise, the lights and traffic from the extra activities at the school will affect their quality of life.

Mary Gallen, who lives on 37th Street West, which borders the school property, said Saint Stephen’s has always been a good neighbor, but that has changed recently.

“It’s more than just the lights,” Gallen said. “It’s the complete redesign.”

She said students and their parents who want these changes will come and go, but the neighborhood will have to live with them for years to come.

Another resident, Lars Hafner, president of State College of Florida, said allowing the changes was a question of integrity.

One of his concerns, as is for many of the residents, was the effect the increased use will have on property values.

When he was doing the research before purchasing his home next to the school 16 months ago, the plan the city council approved did not permit lights on the field, and school officials repeatedly said there would be no lights, Hafner said.

But those who spoke in favor of the changes reiterated the need for the lighting, saying they would be a positive addition to the educational value Saint Stephen’s offers its students.

Janet Pullen, head of the school, said the athletic program needs the lights because the students now practice in the heat of the day and with lights can have later practice times.

Also, with night games, more parents would be able to attend some of the games to cheer on their children. And if the football team qualifies for championship playoff positions, the state high school athletic organization requires lighting on the field.

Hugh Miller, who attended first grade at Saint Stephen’s the first year it opened, said he played sports in high school and college, and appreciates the importance of sports to students.

Miller said a successful sports program also is important to companies seeking to relocate to Bradenton.

“I know for a fact the school is an economic drive of the area,” he said.

Before casting their votes, several council members voiced their agreement that the school was a factor in the city’s economy.

Councilman Patrick Roff said the school was an asset to the community and he understood that it is natural to fear the unknown.

“The school is adding stability to the neighborhood,” Roff said.

After the meeting, Hafner was confident the lawsuit would successfully overturn changes made to restrictions on the property Dr. William D. Sugg placed on the property in his will.

School officials went to court last month and had the will provisions changed.

“When we win the Sugg suit, it will halt the process,” Hafner said.

Craine said the lawsuit was based on the fact there was no public notice that the school officials were seeking a change.