City Council eases zoning restrictions for preschools

The city is in the process of amending current zoning restrictions on the establishment of preschools in residential areas. The amendments allow churches, as well as other private or public facilities, to house preschools without the previously required conditional-use permit and open up residential cul-de-sacs as possible preschool locations.

The effort was motivated by events that occurred earlier this year at the Mercer Island School District’s North Mercer campus, where two prominent Island preschools — Pixie Hill and Little Acorn — have leased space for more than 10 years.

On Jan. 5, MISD superintendent Gary Plano sent a notice of termination to the two tenants, notifying them that the district may need to reclaim the North Mercer space due to “a steadily increasing student population” and “expanding program needs which may require additional classroom spaces.” This announcement sent Little Acorn Director Tiana Traylor and Pixie Hill Director Ann Connolly scrambling to look for new locations.

Two weeks after Plano sent the Jan. 5 notice of possible eviction, the superintendent announced that the district would most likely not reclaim the property after all.

Yet this did not deter Connolly and Traylor from pursuing future locations for their preschools. The directors both understood that the day may come when Pixie Hill and Little Acorn are forced to move. And the search, they have realized, is far from easy.

After months of looking, Traylor found two residential homes suitable to run Little Acorn out of. Yet the city’s existing zoning laws prevent this possibility due to the fact that both houses are located on cul-de-sacs. Therefore, Traylor took steps to have this legal ordinance changed.

“I would like to respectfully request removal of the restriction on home day cares related to cul-de-sac. Mercer Island has many dead-end streets which would severely limit the available sites for housing home day care,” Traylor wrote in a March 9 letter to the Planning Commission, pointing out that a cul-de-sac offers “a wide turn-around radius for student drop-off and safe sightlines as children are escorted to the site.”

Pixie Hill Board President Anne Marie Krivens also wrote a letter to the Planning Commission. She urged the city to change the language of its zoning requirements so that preschools would be included with day cares as “legal accessory units to places of worship.” In particular, her request was motivated by the United Methodist Church’s invitation to house Pixie Hill once its North Mercer lease expires in August 2010.

“Because of the dearth of options available to Pixie Hill, it would be a travesty if Pixie Hill wouldn’t be allowed to relocate to the church because of city zoning requirements,” she wrote.

Last month, city staff reviewed the zoning requirements, agreed that modifications were warranted and prepared a proposal for consideration by the Planning Commission. The commission reviewed the proposal on March 18 and agreed to the changes.

The City Council, clearly for the amendments, has asked the city to re-write a statute that requires one available off-street parking space for every five children preset at the day care or preschool.

“The Council is concerned that this requirement poses a potential barrier to school properties, and this is not our intention. We want to look at a process to reduce this barrier,” said Mayor Jim Pearman.

Pursuant to the amended ordinance, the number of non-resident employees allowed at a home-based day care or preschool is increased from one to three; the percentage of single-family homes devoted to preschool use jumps from 30 percent to 75 percent; and limited signage for day cares, preschools and licensed practitioners is allowed in residential zones.

Preschool facilities “co-located” in churches no longer have to apply for their own conditional-use permits as long as the number of children in attendance does not exceed 20 percent of the site’s legal occupancy, and a parking set-up — to be determined before the document’s second reading — is met.

As a result, Pixie Hill can easily relocate to the United Methodist Church in the fall of 2010, as it hopes to.

In February, the church’s board of trustees wrote a letter to Pixie Hill in which they proposed leasing part of the building to Connolly for three to five years. Efforts have already been made to remodel the church’s basement in order to adequately accommodate 20 preschoolers.

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