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Planning panel doesn’t play with Smallpond for permit

Posted: February 12, 2014 - 5:29pm

“Not in my back yard,” the rallying cry for neighbors opposed to anything from gravel pits to big box stores, got raised again last week when property owners in the Noview Avenue area spoke against a proposed child-care facility on a lot near the west end of Noview near Mullikin Street.

That opposition prevailed last week when the Homer Advisory Planning Commission failed to approve a conditional use permit application by Susannah Webster, owner of Smallpond Childcare, to build a 1,500-square-foot building at 560 Noview Avenue to house her facility. Smallpond currently is in a rented house on Hohe Street.

Although the planning commission voted 4-2 in favor of the CUP, because under current rules a supermajority of five votes is required to approve a CUP, the motion failed. Commissioner Jennifer Sonneborn was on vacation. Commission chairman Franco Venuti and commissioner Roberta Highland voted against the CUP. They are in the process of writing their official findings, and that report will be on the consent agenda at the commission’s next meeting on Feb. 19. 

Webster said purchase of the lot was contingent on the CUP passing. Once the finding is official, Webster has 30 days to appeal to the Homer City Council, acting as the Board of Adjustment. 

“We have a lot of options and a lot of things to suss out,” Webster said.

Ironically, the city council on Monday night approved introduction of an ordinance that would lower the number of votes needed to approve CUP applications from five to four votes. 

That ordinance goes up for public hearing and a second reading at its Feb. 24 meeting. Webster could apply again if that ordinance passes, City Planner Rick Abboud said.

Noview Avenue between Wright Street and Mullikin Street lives up to its name. Tall, mature spruce trees tower over the neighborhood, blocking off views of Kachemak Bay. Although the east end of Noview Avenue has homes on most every lot, the wooded stretch has only five homes built on 13 lots on either side of the block. In the surrounding area, about 25 lots remain undeveloped. Webster proposed to build on a lot 75-feet wide and 140-feet deep. Some lots are double lots, while the lots on either side of 560 Noview are the same size.

Daycare centers in the urban residential zoning district where the operator lives in the home and takes care of no more than eight children don’t require CUPs. Smallpond is licensed for up to 16 children and Webster or staff members would not live in the proposed building. Multifamily homes could be built in the area without CUPs.

Webster said there would be a fenced yard in which children would play for recess. The facility would run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, with regular hours of 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. She said Smallpond serves about 35 families, but not every child goes every day. On any day about 10 to 12 cars would visit. Some families walk children to the facility.

In letters or in testimony, two families who live in the immediate area opposed the CUP, including one couple, Penny Cramer and Jan Jaegar, who live next to the proposed Smallpond lot at the corner of Mullikin and Noview. Another couple, David and Aulikki Knight, live down the street and also spoke against the CUP. Three owners of lots who live in Anchorage or Anchor Point, including an Anchorage man on the other side of the Smallpond lot, also opposed the project.

Cramer and Jaegar objected to the noise of the child-care facility.

“Our quiet days in the yard would be ruined by up to 16 children playing noisily 10 feet away,” Cramer wrote.

“They are our most treasured little people,” Jaegar wrote. “But they are noisy, they cry, they scream, they shout, sing and at times have complete meltdowns when too tired.”

Aulikki Knight, who has lived in the area 20 years, also noted the noise potential.

“Our neighborhood has always been quiet,” she wrote. “Sixteen children can make a lot of noise at any given time of the day.”

The neighbors also said that there would be increased traffic, potentially 36-40 trips a day, Knight said.

In the planning commission minutes, Highland and Venuti wrote a list of findings as to why they opposed the CUP that agreed with the opponents’ complaints about noise and traffic. They said Smallpond would have noise excessive for the neighborhood, and that traffic at peak times would not be comparable to other permitted uses such as bed and breakfast facilities, multi-family dwellings, rooming houses, hostels, parks or playgrounds.

Most of the comments received favored Smallpond. Many letters came from parents of children at the center. 

“They have created a warm, loving and nurturing environment that is a blessing to this community,” wrote Hannah Gustafson.

“She (Webster) cares about how her facility looks and feels, indoors and outdoors. I am confident that her business will be a good neighbor,” wrote Erica Fitzpatrick.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to have our child attend this quality, well-managed program and would highly recommend it to other Homer residents,” wrote Dave and Karen Shealy.

A current neighbor on Hohe Street also wrote in favor of the CUP.

“Susannah has been a conscientious business owner and a great neighbor. Traffic and noise have never been a problem, and I’m amazed at how many of her clients arriveby foot or bicycle,” wrote Erik Pullman.

Smallpond could go in an industrial or commercial area, but Webster said she didn’t want to do that because of the exhaust and dust in those areas. Other daycare centers are in residential neighborhoods, most under the owner-occupant format.

“Child care belongs in neighborhoods, where families and the playgrounds are,” she said. 

There also is a shortage of pre-school child-care facilities in Homer, Webster said. She has two families on a waiting list who are pregnant.

“They haven’t had their first child, and they are so stressed out about child care,” she said. “If I don’t go to work tomorrow, the ER doctor doesn’t go to work tomorrow. There has to be a place in our community for what we do.”

Smallpond children and families had a float in the Homer Winter Carnival parade and won a prize — for individual family, Webster noted. She said she put down “small business” on her float paperwork.

“This tells me something,” she said. “People can’t look at child care as a legitimate business. People have a hard time taking it seriously. This is part of our economy.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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