Weighing Neighbor Impact vs. Walkability and Child Care Options

Both “walkability” and “child care” in the same post?  It’s a Decatur blogger’s dream come true!

Tonight, the Decatur City Commission will vote on approving amendments to the zoning ordinance to allow family home daycares in R-85 and R-60, approved by the Decatur Planning Commission last week.

So?  Well, of particular note is a conversation recorded in the minutes from the Planning Commission meeting (page 22) between some of the commission members and Planning Director Amanda Thompson.  The issue at hand is the lot size requirement in the proposed ordinance, because while the state regulates 35 square feet per child of indoor space, there is no outdoor requirement.  (In Georgia, family daycares can watch a max of six children per day.)

In response to an unrecorded question from commission member Scott Doyon, Ms. Thompson explained that she had recommended a 10,000 square foot lot size “because it would allow an adequate play space as well as a buffer between neighboring properties.”  She also admitted that most R-60 lots are smaller than 9,000 square feet and thus would not meet the minimum lot size to allow a family home daycare.

Mr. Doyon responded by suggesting an “incremental lot size requirement based on the size of the lot” and “stated that residents who live in neighborhoods with smaller lots would appreciate being able to walk to a family day care and that requiring a larger lot size would prevent this use from being established in most Decatur neighborhoods.”  (A large majority of Decatur property is zoned R-60, as evidenced by this color-coded zoning map – pdf)

However, no one else on the commission agreed with Mr. Doyon and the amendment passed with the 10,000 lot size requirement included.  According to the minutes, commission member Tony Powers stated that “it would be difficult to meet lot coverage limits and build a play area on small lots”, while Melissa Manrow noted that a lots below minimum size could request a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

But it’s an interesting tension that boils up time and again in our fair city.  Various zoning ordinances vs. efforts towards walkability.  In this particular case, it’s a bit more interesting since Decatur has an infamous lack of child care options.  In her letter to the City Manager, Ms. Thompson notes that “the city has attempted to provide a balance between allowing this use of residential property to provide services and mitigating the impact on surrounding property owners.”

Whatcha think guys and gals?

23 thoughts on “Weighing Neighbor Impact vs. Walkability and Child Care Options”

  1. Unfortunately, I had to miss last week’s meeting because I was out of town. Had I been there, as a member of the commission, I would have echoed Mr. Doyon’s sentiments. I wasn’t privy to all the objections raised, but I don’t see much that’s compelling in those that are mentioned here. It’s hard, for example, to see how stormwater-based lot coverage considerations would be an issue in this instance.

    If persons of sound mind and body determine that they have the space to provide daycare for one, two, or six children, and they do the work to meet licensing requirements, I don’t see why lot size should be a barrier. We simply can’t anticipate the reactions of all potential neighbors and legislate accordingly; some of this has to be worked out ad hoc among neighbors. Some neighbors will not object to a daycare, because they are out at work when the kids are around, or because they like kids. Some neighbors will object no matter the lot size, because they are crabby by nature or simply find children annoying. There is no way to legislate all the particulars of a situation like this.

    As a recent past member of the ZBA, I don’t relish the notion that the city should adopt ordinances that we suspect are overly broad and then leave it to the ZBA to sort it out. We saw plenty of that, and no one was terribly happy about it, least of all the needlessly inconvenienced residents. It seems like we often default to the most restrictive rules in anticipation of trouble. Sometimes it might be best to start permissive and then fine tune based on actual experience.

  2. I guess this wasn’t a major concern for the City Commissioners. No one mentioned walkability while multiple commissioners were concerned about neighbor impact.

    The ordinance passed unanimously.

    1. Why did they even bother with this insidious ordinance?
      The minimum lot size rules out areas that would benefit the most from walkable daycare.

    2. I support allowing family home day cares in the city, but I question how many people would really be walking to these businesses. Unless they live just a few houses away, more often than not parents will be driving to drop off the child and heading straight to work. Same thing in the afternoon, in the car to pick up the child on the way home from the office.

      Lack of high quality affordable day care is a problem all over the city. Word of a good home day care will spread quickly – well beyond the city limits. Clients may well be from outside the city. Even if they work within the city limits, they will be driving to drop off/pick up the child.

      In theory, I get the walkability connection. In reality , I’m thinking not so much.

        1. I have no idea about rates. My family is long past the day care stage. I do know that all the young families I know have desperate scrambles for daycare and often complain that the “good” centers and nannies are too expensive for their budgets . They say spaces in “good” setting that don’t break the budget are hard to find.

          I figure these family home day care businesses will only help the daycare shortage if they are less expensive than the budget busting options my friends complain about.

      1. I believe the ordinance allows a maximum of 6 children per facility. Basically, letting a trusted neighbor earn some money watching the kids like in the old days. It’s all about walkability.

        1. I think the state requirements for licensing are fairly strict – 44 pages as mentioned here by deanne. There are probably details like expanded liability insurance coverage, first aid and sexual abuse prevention training . A Decatur business license will be required, too. Way different than babysitters in the old days. I don’t see many people jumping through all the hoops to be state and city licensed just to make a few dollars watching neighborhood kids.

            1. My point was that owners will be looking to have those six slots full and probably expect more than a few dollars for them. They may look for clients from farther away than just down the block. Farther from the block – less likely to be walking. To me there is nothing wrong with that – I am generally in favor of these businesses but it IS about more than walkability.

              1. I was responding to Ridgelandistan saying it was all about walkability and characterizing these family home daycares as simply neighbors babysitting for neighbors.

    3. I’m opposed to allowing more intensive use of our existing neighborhoods as this ordinance does. Consequently, while I don’t support the ordinance, I certainly support Amanda’s position. I think she is trying to strike a balance between those of us that see no or little problem with an intense life and those of us who appreciate a little quiet enjoyment.

  3. The commissioners were thoughtful in considering the ordinance as proposed. I didn’t come away thinking that they weren’t supportive of opening up child care options. (They may have used up their discussion on the need for it with the 1st child care applicant.) The lot size was raised, and it was agreed that a variance could remedy smaller lot applicants- Amanda Thompson used a 7,500 sq ft lot as the example. There was also some discussion on traffic impact. ( Jim Baskett said at times his household had 6 cars going, and that seemed to put the impact into perspective.) My impression is that they’d revisit the ordinance if it needs adjusting.

    The great benefit of the ordinance is that it establishes that all family day cares must be registered with the state. According to two of its supporters, the 44 pages of GA requirements are stringent. Keisha Cummingham pressed to ensure that family day cares would keep meeting high standards beyond their initial inspection, and the commisioners added the stipulation that they must maintain their City business license, along with meeting Ga licensing requirements annually. (The DFP will also do annual inspections.)

    1. I hope they choose to revisit the ordinance if necessary rather than using variances to adjust.

      To me, this is a problem with the mindset of our city government. They establish broad ordinances then give variances for projects they like that don’t fit the ordinance. Hard to have confidence in a new ordinance when city officials are suggesting variances from day one.

      Either 10,000 sq ft is the appropriate minimum size or it isn’t. If smaller lot sized applicants are in need of remedy then the ordinance standards are not appropriate in the first place. (personally I think a lesser minimum size would probably be plenty adequate for an in home daycare)

      This zoning by variance mentality is also a problem with current parking and lot coverage ordinances. So many variances have been given – I wonder if either of these standards could be legally enforced if a variance applicant wanted to fight a denial in court.

      1. If I was a mind reader, I bet I’d be telling you that the commissioners agree with you! It’s a less than ideal way to do things, particularly since the 10,000 sq ft lot size was decided by one person. (The reasons are to still allow for normal residence backyard use of a deck, patio, etc + to provide a sight/noise buffer for neighbors.) They probably would’ve discussed the smaller lot sizes further had there been anyone there speaking up for it. I think they worked with what they had- primarily to formalize child care standards.

        I’ll be sadly disappointed if the next Strategic Vision Plan doesn’t include a complete overhaul of City zoning ordinances. What once worked needs major updating.

        1. I guess I am not willing to let the commissioners off the hook so easily. They have the power to change the less than ideal way of doing things.

          I can’t really read between the lines on what you say about one person making the decision but if that is how it went, I blame the commissioners. They are elected to lead. They can and should refuse to rubber stamp things put in front of them by city administration and planning commission if that is what it takes to get it right .

          1. I agree with fifi.

            We elect our city commissioners to lead and make tough decisions, not just rubber stamp the decisions made by Peggy Merriss and Amanda Thompson. Not that I don’t think they are capable and run the city well, but our commissioners have for too long just cededed control to them on most decisions, even when they know they’re wrong.

              1. What Fifi and Marshal said. If an issue is so clearly debatable, as this lot size requirement is, then discussion should arise regardless of whether or not there is someone “there to speak up for it.” Isn’t that what we “pay” the commissioners for?

                Let me also take the opportunity to pile on about the “zoning by variance” paradigm that Decatur seems unable to shift away from; and the mentality of trying to write regulations to placate whiny neighbors who might appear later. Regulate safety and sanitation and let individuals work out the neighbor stuff. I’m not forking over precious tax dollars for the City to try and be everybody’s nanny.

    2. I don’t recall anyone raising the lot size issue other than Amanda. And when she did, it was unprompted.

      I recall her saying that she could certainly look at it again if the Commission wanted to, but no one took her up on it.

      1. That’s the way I recall the lot size stuff too.

        Yep. Not the ideal way to do things. One supporter brought up the timing of reaching a decision & her pending child care accreditation. Don’t know if that affected things. To me, the commissioners seemed to be a bit uncomfortable during the entire discussion. It was also the 2nd meeting in a row where blogs have been mentioned, although I can’t remember when it came up. If we only had DM tee shirts that could be worn to meetings… :0)

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