Kent daycare providers say city too tough

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Now, the city of Kent is revisiting its zoning codes on daycare centers after daycare providers, parents and members of a local church are questioning why the community needs so much protection from small children.

Two years ago, the city set up new zoning regulations on daycare centers after Children's Village considered purchasing the convent at St. Patrick Church on North DePeyster Street and turning it into a daycare center. After neighbors voiced their opposition to the noise the daycare center would bring, Children's Village withdrew its request.

Elaine Sturbaum, director of Children's Village, said she was surprised to see so much opposition to her request two years ago.

"It was one block away from St. Patrick School," she said.

Now, Sturbaum is considering expanding her business somewhere outside the city. But two other centers, Zeller's Before and After School Care and Trinity Quality Child Care, are attempting to move from the churches where the centers have been since their inception. Both moves require variances from city codes.

Zeller's Before and After School care is moving from First Christian Church to 800 N. Mantua St., a former Mr. Dairy Store, said operator Mary Zeller. The Kent Planning Commission granted her a conditional use permit to locate there, and more recently, the Kent Board of Zoning Appeals granted her a variance from the 100-foot setback requirement.

Now a similar variance request for Trinity Quality Child Care, which is attempting to move from Trinity Lutheran Church to the Kent Church of the Brethren, is pending.

Zeller said the city's zoning regulations are too stringent and the 100-foot setback excludes almost every property in the city. Even if she were to find such a parcel, it would put the cost of daycare out of reach for her clients.

"I've had to jump through all these hoops," she said. "I feel like if I was to open a bar I'd have an easier time."

The First Christian Church's official board wrote a letter to several city officials calling the city's regulation's "unintentional discriminatory zoning" and urging daycare to be allowed anywhere in the city as long as the building and its operators meet state licensing standards.

"The children of our city have been treated far more badly than an asphalt company who dumps railcars that sound like thunder almost a mile away," states the letter by Terry Neubert, chairman of the church's board of trustees and Paul Pennock, chairman of the official board. "They are in the same classification as the bars . . . The city already has largely unenforced noise ordinances, so why has Council decided to protect us from small children?"

Effie Bates, director of Trinity Quality Child Care, said although safety might have had something to do with the reason the setback requirement was drafted, it has the unintended effect of jeopardizing the safety of the children she supervises.

Trinity and Zeller's are the only programs in Kent which specialize in school-age children. Since few buildings with 100-foot setbacks surrounding the building perimeter exist in Kent, meeting the codes could require construction of a new building, which could in turn, raise rates for parents already struggling to make ends meet.

"Are they hurting them or helping them?" Bates said. "If there are fewer places to go, the kids stay home, or the parents don't go to work. Where does common sense come into play?"

Zeller said even with the move to the new location, her rent will increase and in time, so must her rates.

That is a concern for Karen Giaimo and her husband, Chuck, who have a 7-year-old son, Matthew, in Zeller's program.

"If the rates go up, I could be forced to use a babysitter," she said. "I don't want to have him move somewhere else. He gets along with the other kids, and it's a good environment for him. I think he would really miss that if I were to take him away from it, and I can't see taking him away from something he enjoys."

Brenda Bontrager said she is even more concerned for single parents who struggle to pay for child care out of one income. She and her husband, Ron, have a son, Kyle, and daughter, Rachel, in the program.

She said she was surprised to hear about the city's zoning requirements.

"I can't imagine we're the only parents who work," she said. "I'm sure people on city council need daycare, too. It's almost like families have been pushed to the side."

But Kent Plans Administrator Gary Locke said while requiring large daycare centers, or those with more than seven children, to be in commercial districts instead of residential zones is a new requirement, the 100-foot setback has always been part of the codes.

He said the change was made last year because there were requests for commercial daycare centers in commercial districts that could not be pursued because zoning laws didn't allow it. Neighbors of the former convent where Children's Village wanted to move also questioned why such a business would have been allowed in their neighborhood to begin with.

"A lot of people thought it was absurd that daycare was only allowed in residential areas," he said.

But the 100-foot setback was just something that carried over from the old codes. Now, city officials have agreed the regulations might be too strict after reviewing codes in other communities and finding Kent's required setback to be larger than those in other towns.

Locke said he believed the intent behind the setback was to allow enough space for a decent sized play area, as well as to provide a noise buffer.

"If you get 15 kids playing outside your door and you work second shift, you're not going to get any sleep," he said.

Similar concerns were raised at a recent planning commission meeting, where Trinity's plans to relocate were discussed. Neighbors of the Kent Church of the Brethren said they were concerned about the noise the daycare would bring their quiet neighborhood, and also raised concerns that their property values would go down.

The planning commission plans to hold public hearings in the future to discuss possible changes to the code. The date for the hearing has not yet been set, but the city administration, city council and the Kent Board of Education are expected to be invited to participate in the talks.

Chairman Thomas Walter called the setback "extremely excessive" and said he doesn't think the setback requirement should be greater than the ones in place for the zoning district where the daycare would operate. He added changing welfare laws might necessitate the expansion of daycare in Kent.

"As more and more people are required to be employed, there certainly will be a growing need for more daycare," he said.

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