Concerns Raised About Westside School
Everyone agrees that a new elementary school is needed on Escambia County’s west side. And the Escambia County School District has plans to locate one a few miles away from Pleasant Grove Elementary.
The new school the district is planning would replace Pleasant Grove—while retaining the name—and also take in some students from both Hellen Caro and Blue Angels elementary schools. It would also greatly modernize the educational venue available to students in the area.
“Similar to A.K Suter in style and modern efficiencies,” said Paul Fesko, District 2 representative on the Escambia County School Board.
But not everyone is pleased about the school district’s plans. Concerns about the project are being raised, regarding both its proximity to Naval Air Station Pensacola and its impact on protected wetlands located on the Sorrento Road property.
“I told the school board that I don’t know how you’re going to get a permit,” said Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill. “What the school board has currently submitted to the county is not permittable.”
School district officials, however, don’t appear too concerned and are pushing ahead with permitting for the project.
“At this point, I’m a little taken aback,” Fesko said, referring to such concerns being raised at this point in the process.
“We’re getting a little late in the game,” said Kevin Adams, representing District 1 on Escambia’s school board. “We’ve already spent some money.”
Flight Paths and Wetlands
Escambia County School District purchased the property off Sorrento Road in 2015 for just shy of a million dollars. The new elementary school slated for the property is estimated to run around $38 million.
The overall property at the Sorrento Road site is about 60 acres. Half of that is what would be considered uplands, or buildable.
“Nice, high and dry. The intent is to build the school up there,” explained Keith Wasdin, the school district’s construction manager for the project.
The other half of the property is considered wetlands. And that’s the basis for one of the concerns being raised about the project.
In a letter to Escambia County officials in October, Barbara Albrecht, director of the Panhandle Watershed Alliance, stressed the ecological significance of the school district’s Sorrento Road property. She pointed out that the property served as a wetland filtration area and disturbing it could negatively impact other restoration efforts, specifically listing the Perdido Pitcher Plan Prairie Mitigation Plan and the Perdido and Pensacola Bay Estuary Program.
“This area contains a mosaic of mixed forested wetlands, scrub/titi swamps, hydric pine flatwoods and low-lying uplands, with substantial encroachment and fragmentation occurring,” Albrecht wrote, encouraging efforts to circumvent any impact to the wetlands on the property.
“Recognize that spanning wetlands versus filling them is better for the environment,” she wrote.
The other primary concern being voiced is in regards to the school’s proximity to the airfield at NAS Pensacola.
“We just should not be building high risk facilities in the flight path of the Navy base,” said Commissioner Underhill. “They’ll be flying over this school with F-18s.”
Underhill said he didn’t understand why the school district was choosing to locate its new school on property located near the base, not only because of the flight path concerns but also due to concerns about the associated noise.
“I cannot understand why the school district would want to build a school in the high noise area of the Air Installation Compatibility Use Zone,” the commissioner wrote in his response to Albrecht’s letter on the issue.
Underhill said that the county would be taking these issues of concern into consideration when issuing permits for the development of the property.
“It’s our responsibility at the county to avoid base conflicts,” he said.
Waiting to Move Ahead
When school board member Fesko sat on a committee that reviewed projects using half-cent sales tax funds, such as a new school, he also wondered about certain issues with the Sorrento Road property.
“The committee asked the same question that some people are now asking,” he said.
Fesko wanted to know about environmental impact particulars, the concerns about its proximity to the base and also concerns about how an influx of school traffic would impact the surrounding roadways, particularly Sorrento Road.
Fesko said that all of these concerns have been addressed.
As for the traffic concerns, the district is planning to build a new road onto the property for drop-off and pick-up traffic in an effort to minimize the impact to Sorrento. And to mitigate wetland impact—Wasdin said approximately half an acre of wetland will be impacted—the district intends to designate the remaining wetland portion as conservation land.
And as for concerns about the proximity to base operations, Fesko said, those are misplaced. This new school will actually be located farther from the base than the current Pleasant Grove.
“In fact, it does not encroach on the flight path of the base,” Fesko said of the planned school. “In fact, the current Pleasant Grove is much closer than the new one would be.”
“If you look at an aerial map of Pleasant Grove, it’s within a stone’s throw of the runway,” Adams pointed out.
Currently, the school district is in the permitting stages of this project. Wasdin said he hopes to break ground in the first quarter of next year, but right now, he’s waiting on permits associated with the wetland area of the property from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Out at the Navy base, Public Affairs Officer Jason Bortz said that proximity to a flight path was always a concern but that the Navy was “working with the county to ensure concerns from all parties are discussed and addressed.” Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley said that the issue of the new school will be discussed in January at the Board of Adjustment meeting. She noted in an email that there would be “many important things to consider when determining future school locations.”
At the school district, the plan for a new Pleasant Grove is moving ahead as planned.
“I talked to the superintendent about this, and he said as far as he knows it’s moving ahead,” Adams said, brushing off concerns being raised as being driven primarily by Underhill. “The only person I have heard through this whole thing is Commissioner Underhill.”
“I don’t see why we would stop until something came up that has not been addressed or has changed,” Fesko said. “And what that could possibly be, I don’t know.”