Child care task force seeks zoning ordinance amendment, licensing process change

Paula Priebe, director of neighborhood services for the city of Big Rapids, presented a recommendation from the planning commission for a zoning ordinance text amendment which would allow child care centers in the residential professional district on a principal with conditions basis to the City Commission on Monday. This potential zoning ordinance change is one step a local child care task force is taking in an effort to increase affordable child care centers in Mecosta and Osceola counties. A public hearing will be held regarding this potential zoning change at the next City Commission meeting. (Pioneer photo/Taylor Fussman)

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA COUNTIES — Members of a parent coalition and child care task force focused on eliminating barriers to employment are continuing efforts to increase affordable child care centers in Mecosta and Osceola counties.

One way local residents are working toward this goal is by attempting to change city zoning ordinances to allow child care centers in residential professional districts.

Pastor Josh Foor, of Big Rapids First Baptist Church, said he applied for this zoning change last fall with the intention to use a portion of the church building as a child care center, if the text amendment to the ordinance is passed.

He explained after realizing there was a shortage of affordable child care in the area, he wanted to find a way to help.

“Our desire is to meet the need of the community,” Foor said. “We want to have a place for people to bring their children where they know they will be safe.”

Paula Priebe, director of neighborhood services for the city of Big Rapids, said after several months of discussion regarding the possible zoning change, the planning commission made a recommendation to the Big Rapids City Commission to allow child care centers in the residential professional district on a principal with conditions basis.

Priebe explained this designation means if the zoning ordinance amendment passes, in the future an individual can submit a zoning permit application to open a child care center in the residential professional district and as long as it meets criteria of the district and a few additional conditions, she as director of neighborhood services can approve the application.

The specific conditions which would need to be met include the center must “fit the character” of the neighborhood and there must be safe drop off and pick up zones, among others, she said.

Priebe added if a person wanted to construct a new building for a child care center in this district — rather than start a center in an existing building — they also would need to complete a site plan review and would need to have the project approved by the planning commission.

Additionally, she explained the zoning ordinance amendment does not deal with state licensing laws related to opening a child care center, and even if the zoning permit application is approved, the applying party still would need to work through the proper channels to ensure they are meeting all the required guidelines.

“Just because they are approved through the city, doesn’t mean it would necessarily be approved through the state,” Priebe said.

Foor said they are still in the early stages of meeting the state guidelines for a child care center and finding someone to run the center if the ordinance amendment passes.

Priebe said a public hearing will be held at the next City Commission meeting regarding the zoning ordinance, and commissioners will have an opportunity to take action at the meeting.

Mecosta-Osceola Great Start Collaborative Coordinator Jessica Wimmer added if the amendment passes, it will not only mean a potential child care center in the First Baptist Church, but the possibility of several others throughout the city.

In addition to the zoning ordinance amendment, members of the child care task force, including state and local government officials, parents and business owners, are attempting to change the child care licensing and registration process altogether.

Currently, to become registered to run a child care center, a person must apply through the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). This process involves a number of background checks and inspections, both during and after the registration process.

State Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, explained previously the task force is trying to restructure this system by forming a separate organization or board to issue licensing outside of LARA.

She said part of the goal of this restructuring is to eliminate or modify some of the regulations placed on child care providers which make it difficult for them to open or stay in business, with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of affordable centers in the region.

Hoitenga said state legislators are meeting with stakeholders on this issue within the next week to discuss drafting specific legislation regarding the licensing process change.

Wimmer said adequate child care is an essential part of a thriving community because without this recourse, some parents are unable to work because they are taking care of their children.

“We live in an area where people can’t find child care, so they have to turn down the jobs that are available,” she said.

Wimmer noted actions such as the zoning change are important steps to take toward reducing the child care crisis.

“We want to provide a safe place where kids can not only survive, but thrive,” Foor said.

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