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Council to have public hearing on day care zoning issue
This house on Big Horn Drive in Riverton is at the center of a city council zoning dispute over a proposed day care center. Photo by Wayne Nicholls

Council to have public hearing on day care zoning issue

Jul 12, 2012 - By Emily Etheredge, Staff Writer

After a lengthy and emotional discussion, the Riverton City Council voted to have a public hearing June 17 on an ordinance change that would allow some child care facilities in residential areas.

Discussion on the issue began June 19, when council members denied approval for a proposed day care center because it would be located in a city zoning category that does not allow child care facilities.

Jennifer Person approached city officials in January to inform them of her intentions to open a new day care facility at 944 Big Horn Drive. She said she was advised by city staff to purchase the home.

City administrator Steven Weaver later researched the area and found the home was in residential zone A. The Riverton Municipal Code requires that homes within zone A must be "one family dwellings constructed in all respects to comply with the requirements of the code."

Council members met in an executive session for 50 minutes before the special meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue with city attorney Rick Sollars.

When the meeting reconvened, Councilman Eric Heiser proposed a motion for an ordinance that would allow child care centers for up to eight children to operate in zone A, with a public hearing on the issue July 17.

"The motion I have made will give everyone the chance to speak their piece," Heiser said. "When we go through rezoning, we go through three readings, and this will give both sides the opportunity to be heard. I think this is the fairest way to continue here and come to some sort of resolution."

Mayor Ron Warpness said there was a lot of angst in the community over the issue, and city council members received numerous phone calls from concerned citizens.

"This is very difficult for us to move forward," Warpness said. "This has all become very messy. I think it is important that we all have the opportunity to participate in the discussion."

Zone A intentions

Sollars clarified for council members that a variance, or exception to the zoning rules, would not solve the problem because it would still be against zoning code to have a day care in zone A.

"The day cares are permitted in zone B, but there is no reference to them in zone A," Sollars said. "That was not an oversight. It seems intentional that it was not meant to be there."

Councilman Richard Gard said this was not a vote against children on any level.

"This is about individuals in this community who have bought their houses in zone A," Gard said. "That was the reason for many to buy their home. I think Person did everything she could through the city, she asked every proper question. I just don't think that because of this one instance everyone needs to have their zone changed."

Community need

Person addressed the council and said she has turned down five families needing child care within the last week.

"I am getting constant phone calls from people needing help taking care of their children," Person said. "The need in this community is great. I will continue to operate in my residential zone B home until other things have changed."

Two other day care businesses apparently are are operating in residential zone A, which further complicates the new issue.

"I can certainly see a need in the community for day cares," said councilman Lars Baker. "What we are talking about here is not permitting some and actually putting two day care facilities out of business. I don't know how you get around that."

Monica Kuhnley has operated a day care for almost 12 years in zone A. With tears in her eyes, Kuhnley told the council this was her livelihood being ripped away from her.

"It is not fair to take this away," Kuhnley said. "This is all I have ever done. Hopefully next week I will have every single day care parent that I know show up to the meeting."

City staff error

Audience member Laura Toney asked the council to address the fact that city staff encouraged Person to buy the house, knowing her intentions, when the house was known to be in zone A.

"Person was misled by the city," Toney said. "Person did everything she was told to do and came to the city for names and addresses to make sure it was OK to operate her day care in the neighborhood. She was above board with her intentions, and the city misled her."

Weaver said there was an error.

Toney said Person followed the protocol that was given to her by the city was trying to follow the letter of the law.

Riverton planning commission member Mike Bailey said it scared him that the city was looking at rezoning in such a short period of time.

"The last time we went through this with the planning commission, it took us years," Bailey said. "To think that you are just going to do this in three readings with the council means it will be prompt and dangerous. Why don't you look at spot zoning?"

Gard said "spot zoning" was a wonderful suggestion, but then zoning through the city would be inconsistent.

"That is why we zone," Gard said. "Whether we do it in three more readings or we do it tonight, zone A is zone A."

Tone of hearing

Councilman Todd Smith said he worried the upcoming meeting would be emotional and would result in pitting the citizens of Riverton against one another.

"It sounds like we are going to fight one another next week," Smith said. "Then it is going to become an arbitrary argument of who is going to tug on the right heart strings or who is going to have the best argument."

Gard asked the council if there was a way to assist monetarily.

"The city spends money all of the time," Gard said. "It is obvious that we have impacted a citizen who came in and asked very poignant questions of what she should do. We certainly don't have the funds to buy her out, but we have enough to help the situation."

Councilwoman Mary Ellen Christensen, Smith and Gard voted against the proposed ordinance.

Councilwoman Diana Mahoney, Heiser and Baker voted in favor of the ordinance change, with Warpness breaking the tie in favor of having the public hearing.

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Riverton City Council