By Jack Durham
McKinleyville may take a position on the county zoning requirements for preschools and child care centers in town.
The issue was discussed at the Nov. 28 meeting of the new McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee (McKMAC), which decided to postpone making a decision until its Jan. 30 meeting so members could gather more information.
The struggles faced by preschools in opening new facilities in McKinleyville were brought before the McKMAC by local resident Hilary Mosher, the director of the Strongbridge Montessori School in Arcata.
Mosher went through a lengthy and expensive process to open her school in McKinleyville. After doing so, her landlord sold the building she was in and she had to move. She ended up in Arcata, where the zoning was more favorable and the process much less expensive than in McKinleyville.
Mosher pointed out that preschools are treated differently than other businesses in McKinleyville and face a more onerous county permitting process.
If a commercial enterprise wants to open up shop in McKinleyville’s business district, most are considered “principally permitted.” All they need to do it find a vacant building, move in, get a business license and open their doors.
But a child care center needs to get a conditional use permit from the County of Humboldt. This is in addition to the business license and all of the child care licensing requirements dictated by the State of California.
The cost of applying for a conditional use permit from the county is about $1,900 to $2,000 and the process can take several months, during which time the owner of the child care center may be leasing space without generating any revenue.
Mosher said that it cost about $10,000 to open a preschool, not counting the permitting fees. And once the school finally opens, the only way for an owner to recoup the investment is through the tuition charged to families for caring for their children. These families, Mosher noted, are having hard enough time making ends meet, so the tuition can’t be too high.
So how can McKinleyville be more friendly to child care centers and preschools? The answer is to change the zoning so that they’re principally permitted in certain areas. This would allow new facilities to open without getting conditional use permits.
Mosher noted that both Arcata and Eureka have areas where child care centers are principally permitted.
Mosher said she was dissatisfied with language in the draft General Plan Update, which she says gives lip service to child care centers without providing them with any relief.
But Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, who was in attendance at the McKMAC meeting, said that Mosher’s concerns will be addressed in the General Plan Update.
“I think you have been heard very clearly,” Sundberg told Mosher.
Sundberg said he contacted County Planner Michael Richardson about the issue. Richardson responded with an email outlining some the proposed language that will be in the draft plan. That language calls for allowing child care centers to be principally permitted in McKinleyville’s commercial areas and multi-family neighborhoods, which are areas zoned for apartment complexes.
But what about agricultural areas and neighborhoods with single-family homes? Child care facilities with six or fewer children are allowed in residential neighborhoods. But if there are more than six children, a conditional use permit is required.
McKMAC member Pat Barsanti warned to board that there are reasons why there are such laws, in part to avoid lawsuits.
County Director of Planning and Building Kevin Hamblin said that the conditional use permit process allows neighbors to be notified of proposed preschools and gives them a chance to comment on hours of operation, traffic, parking and other issues.
McKMAC member Tim Hooven made a motion to postpone making a recommendation on the issue until the Jan. 30 meeting. This will give time for the committee members to gather more information.
The McKMAC’s regular monthly meetings are held at 5:30 p.m. on the last Wednesday of the month at the McKinleyville Community Services District office at 1656 Sutter Road. Emails can be sent to the McKMAC at firstname.lastname@example.org.