ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — More than 400 pounds of bombs and rockets, left over from a World War II-era testing range, were unearthed at Odyssey Middle School eight years ago, and for many area residents, the shock still lingers.
Now, as plans are progressing to build more than 10,000 new homes on and near the former Pinecastle Jeep Range, Orange County school district officials say they won't risk repeating that ordeal.
No schools will be built where the bombs once dropped, School Board Chairman Bill Sublette said.
"I feel very comfortable saying it's a complete nonstarter," Sublette said
While new growth often requires new schools, finding locations to build them for Vista Park and Starwood, two sprawling developments planned for the Lake Nona area, could prove tricky.
Vista Park will be built directly atop a 1,500-acre tract of the Pinecastle range, which is believed to hide everything from tank-busting rockets to fragmentation bombs underground.
The project's developer, Jay Thompson of Land Innovations LLC, said he understands the concerns, but the ambitious clean-up effort planned for the site will make it safe for homes, schools and more.
"We're certainly not going to build homes on a contaminated site," he said.
But many nearby residents harbor lingering doubts, having lived through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scouring their neighborhoods for hidden explosives less than a decade ago.
"What the Army Corps always communicated to us was you cannot do a 100 percent [clean-up], it's impossible," said Ron Cumello of the neighboring Vista Lakes community.
All involved agree the schools in southeast Orlando can't handle as many new families as Vista Park and Starwood will bring. Most are already at or near their capacity.
"That's one of the highest growth areas, not just in Central Florida, but in all of Florida," said School Board member Daryl Flynn, whose district includes Lake Nona. "We certainly are anticipating the need for additional schools."
For the 2015-16 school year, Lake Nona High had space for 275 more students. School board estimates say Starwood's 6,000-plus homes, currently zoned for that school, would add about 720 new high schoolers.
Moss Park Elementary, currently 96 percent full, would be even more overwhelmed. Starwood would bring 1,100-plus new grade school students, another estimate provided to the planning board shows.
Sublette said the district hopes to find sites for a new elementary school and a new high school in Starwood, which is not on the Pinecastle range. An elementary school could also be added to Vista Park, he said, on a site that doesn't overlap with the bombing area.
All told, the district wants to add five schools to the fast-growing Lake Nona area, where several other new neighborhoods are also in various stages of development, Sublette said.
Vista Park's impact on local schools is farther off. Due to the extensive clean-up planned for the former bombing range land, home construction isn't expected there for three years, developers have said.
It also should demand less school space. Vista Park is the smaller of the two projects, and Thompson noted that plans call for more than half of its homes to be deed-restricted to residents 55 or older.
All residential developments are required to negotiate with the School Board to address capacity issues, resulting in an agreement about how to create enough classroom seats for incoming families.
Thompson said Starwood, which only needs final city approval to begin construction, and Vista Park are already working with the district on the issue. The sides will have to come to an agreement before Orlando's City Council can approve zoning for the projects.
Tyrone Smith, a government relations administrator for Orange County schools, said the district hopes to acquire land for the new schools quickly, "before the property price goes up exponentially."
Vista Park also is being held up by an appeal filed by residents who are challenging the planning board's approval of that project at its January meeting.
Cumello said the lack of settled school sites will be an issue in that appeal. What happened at Odyssey in 2007 remains fresh in the minds of the project's opponents, he said.
That summer, bombs — some of them live — began to surface on marshland near the middle school. During the Christmas break, crews unearthed 50 fragmentation bombs and other explosives buried on school grounds, including beneath the running track.
The scare soon spread to nearby neighborhoods, including Vista Lakes, where Cumello was homeowners association president. Some parents called for the school to be shut down permanently.
"The emotions were very high ... People were really, really concerned about what was going on and whether or not that school was safe, period," he said.
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