By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Aug. 14 — On Monday night, the Luray Council voted, 4-1, to deny a request by Every Child Early Learning Center for a special use permit to operate a childcare facility at St. Marks Lutheran Church on East Main Street. Several council members voiced concerns over limited parking and high traffic volumes surrounding a facility proposed to serve 75 children and 25 staff members.
“It scares me a little bit,” Councilman Ron Vickers said during discussion Monday night that followed a public hearing that drew only two speakers — one for, one against.
The application submitted June 5 by Jennifer Smith — one of three co-directors of the proposed facility — states the center would be “specialized for children with and without special needs.” The application outlines that the childcare operation would be renting from St. Marks, “but will not be associated with the church itself.”
“I have spent hundreds of hours in St. Marks,” Smith told the council on Monday. “We’ve had staff there, kids there, working hard, tirelessly, to make sure it’s safe for kids, for families…putting in precautions to handle children with any special needs, meeting every single regulation.”
However, the facility has yet to undergo a full, detailed inspection by state officials to receive their approval to operate a childcare facility. Smith told the council this week that the center needed the Town’s approval first, before the Virginia Department of Education would conduct their inspection.
“This is just the last piece of the puzzle,” Smith told Councilman Ligon Webb, referring to the Town’s approval of the special use permit. Webb had posed the question of whether the issue should be tabled until state approval is in place for the site.
“We have almost everything ready, but we still have a few things to do to get up to licensing standards,” Smith acknowledged. “Tabling this will postpone it for these families who desperately need childcare before the school year starts.”
While the council collectively recognized the need for such a service in the community, several members seemed to be unable to get past inconsistencies in the applicant’s information regarding traffic concerns and parking. While Smith specifically told the council during the public hearing on Monday that The Bradley Funeral Home had granted permission to use their parking lot, except during funerals — a letter from the funeral home read during open session a few minutes later stated something different.
“The Bradley Funeral Home parking lot is for funeral home business only,” Town Manager Steve Burke read to the council. “We have made an exception for Sunday services at St. Marks.”
Smith responded by saying that the childcare facility also had other parking options available nearby, and employees were not opposed to walking from an available lot to St. Marks. Luray Family Dental, which sits diagonal across the Main Street intersection, also sees a high volume of traffic and recently built a larger parking lot to reduce on-street parking that often filled Deford Avenue along that block and spilled onto Main Street.
“I do think there is a need,” Councilman Jason Pettit said. “But the volume of staff and children…the alley is an unimproved alley. We don’t plow that alley.”
The alley in question runs behind St. Marks — the proposed drop-off and pick-up location. Smith has stated that the facility would pay to have gravel put on the unpaved road, and they would continue to maintain it, as well as handle snow removal. Even with that verbal commitment, council members seemed unconvinced that the alley would handle a much higher traffic volume without majors improvements, even noting that heavy rains could create ruts.
If the alley became unusable, it would push traffic onto Main Street — the council’s top concern, even though it’s not actually the facility’s plan to do so.
“This past week on a Tuesday evening…driving down Main Street…her child was in the street in a diaper with no clothes or shoes on…she was on the sidewalk…that concerns me,” Michelle Walters told the council (referring to Smith) during Monday’s public hearing. “And he’s not going to be the only child there that has a risk of running out in the road, getting away…and that’s a bit of a concern because that road is highly [traveled].”
The Luray Police Department has been aware of the situations along Main Street and have been called to Smith’s residence on Bixler’s Ferry Road to help with her children being on or along the highway.
On Monday, Smith acknowledged that her son often ran off, and she acknowledged the help she has received from local police.
“That is a big reason why we are increasing the fence and having that security,” Smith told the council. “When [my son] got in the road, I was not on the sidewalk. I went back in the building. He ran out of the building and got over the fence.”
On July 12, the Luray Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the application for Every Child Early Learning Center, with the conditions that the permit would not transfer upon sale of the property and state licensing be issued by the Virginia Department of Education.
While Webb offered an option to table the request until state licensing was received by the applicant, Councilman Joey Sours moved forward with the staff recommendation to deny the permit to operate a childcare facility at 201 East Main St. “due to noncompliance with the required parking established in Section 506.9 of the Zoning Supplemental Regulations.”
The motion passed 5-1, with Webb dissenting on the premiss that a preschool had operated at the site previously, and to allow the applicant time to see if the operation could even receive state approval.
Brianna Hawkins and Josephine Hoselton were also listed as co-directors of the facility. Smith told the council she had already hired about 20 full-time employees, with plans to hire 10 more.
Pre-school and childcare facilities are required to obtain a Special Use Permit per Town Code 406.2.i. Town codes defines a childcare facility as “A building or structure, however designated, other than public school facilities operated for the purposes of providing care, guidance, education or training, or any part thereof, to any child five years old or younger during only part of the 24-hour day for more than five children not of common parentage.” St. Marks sits within a Business (B-1) zoning district.
The Town Code also requires that, “Such facilities shall meet all applicable regulations of the Department of Social Services, the Department of Health, and the state and local building codes.” While not all of these measures were met, the council focused on supplementary “parking requirements for public or private nursery, day care, kindergarten, elementary, intermediate or high schools — there shall be provided one
parking space for each teacher, employee, or administrator, whether full or part time, whose activities are conducted between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. in addition to the requirements of the auditoriums.”
Just hours before the project site was denied by the Luray Council, Smith said the facility held a “soft open” and she later told council that optimally the childcare facility would be open “next week.”
“I think it’s a wonderful idea. I think we need a special education facility for children with disabilities,” Walters said during Monday’s public hearing. She previously operated the Polliwogs daycare facility on Cave Street until she had a “really bad accident” in February and ended up selling the business in March.
“The location is not a great idea,” Walters continued, referring to St. Marks. She noted that an adequate “sick room” is not in place at the proposed site, and she echoed the council’s concerns over traffic and parking.
“I think it’s the wrong location,” Councilman Sours said prior to making the motion to deny. “I don’t think it works there.”
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