City to allow some child care facilities in residential zone

Aug 26, 2012 By Emily Etheredge, Staff Writer

Council members also denied two day care license applications at Tuesday's meeting.

The Riverton City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday that allows family child care homes for up to 10 children in residential zone A.

The 4-3 vote came after two months of controversy concerning day care facilities. The troubles began June 19 when council members denied approval for a new facility based on city zoning and protests filed against the applicant.

In January, Jennifer Person approached city officials to inform them of her intention to open a day care facility at 944 Big Horn Drive. She said she was advised to proceed with the home's purchase.

When city administrator Steven Weaver later researched the neighborhood, he found the property was in residential zone A.

The Riverton Municipal Code required that homes within zone A must be "one family dwellings constructed in all respects to comply with the requirements of the code."

It was eventually discovered that other day care facilities were already operating in zone A, and denial of Person's application would have implications for those existing centers.

Councilman Todd Smith said he recalled a situation when he was not serving on the council when councilman Eric Heiser was passionate about not rezoning property near the hospital.

"I remember sitting in the audience listening to him, and I thought he was making the wrong decision," Smith said. "He kept hearing from property owners who didn't want the area rezoned. Now that I am on the council I understand that he was listening to his neighbors telling him not to rezone that property."

Smith said every decision the council makes affects someone, and the purpose of the system of government is to represent those in the community.

"That is the reason we have council wards with council members living in those neighborhoods," Smith said. "We can listen to the voices of our citizens, which is why I am asking the council to listen to the majority of my neighbors and vote against the zone change."

Councilman Lars Baker said this was a hard vote on an issue that was not simple.

"If there was some way I could go back two months and just not talk about all of this, I would do it," Baker said. "It turns out that is illegal so we have to do something about it. We have had some excellent comments from people on both sides of the issue, and we have some real concerns on both sides. Someone called me earlier today, and I told them I changed my opinion on this issue every 15 minutes."

Amber Goodrich, owner of Amber's Home Day Care, questioned councilman Richard Gard about a comment he made at the previous council meeting.

"You told me that the day care owners forced everyone to sign the petitions in favor of the day cares," Goodrich said. "Our neighbors signed the petitions, and they don't have an issue. There have been day cares in that area for many years. If our neighbors don't have an issue, I don't understand why you have a problem."

Goodrich said if there was ever a problem with the existing day cares in operation, the neighbors would have let council members know.

"Why does this have to be a zoning issue?" Goodrich said. "Why not listen to the people who live on those neighborhoods who don't have a problem with it?"

Gard said he thought the comment was misled, and that he didn't mean the neighbors were forced to vote or to speak in favor or opposition.

"I think when somebody comes to your house and puts forth a need you are not always 100 percent honest with how you feel," Gard said. "It is proper for people to say they don't want something but then when they close the door they have the opportunity to show opposition. I have had many phone calls about this issue with only one in favor of the day cares. I think the people that are in the wrong position with this issue are the ones who have moved their day cares into zone A."

Mayor Ron Warpness said if there was such strong opposition to the issue he would have thought more people would be expressing opposition.

"The council has had a lot of heartburn over this particular issue," Warpness said.

Council members Diana Mahoney, Heiser, Baker and Warpness voted in favor of the zone change with Smith, Mary Ellen Christensen and Gard voting no.

Permits denied

The council members denied two day care license applications immediately following the zoning discussion.

Person and Sarah Hutchins filed applications for day cares in zone A, Person's on 944 Big Horn Drive and Hutchins' at 327 Elk Drive, which would comply with the ordinance change for zone A.

Smith asked council members how many day cares seemed satisfactory in Logan Park.

"How many is too many?" Smith said.

Hutchins said her day care would be a drop-in day care and not a full-time establishment.

"If someone needs to go to a doctor's appointment, they can bring their child to me, and I will watch them for a few hours," Hutchins said.

Council members Christensen, Smith, Baker and Gard voted not to approve the permit applications with Heiser, Mahoney and Warpness voting in favor. The motion failed.

Person said later that she was surprised council members denied her application after the lengthy ordeal.

"At the beginning of everything council members kept reassuring me if there was anything in their power to do something they would try to help me," Person said. "I don't know what changed for them between then and now, but it was in their power on Aug. 21, and they chose to do nothing."

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