Berkeley Lake residents, council divided on child care issue

BERKELEY LAKE - More than 50 residents attended a Thursday night public hearing in which Berkeley Lake officials were to consider modifying the city's home occupation ordinance.

The modifications would provide guidelines and restrictions for in-home businesses such as music and dance instruction, tutoring and in-home child care.

The hot-button issue being considered was in-home child care, though the city's proposed restrictions were more strict than the state's.

The text put forth by city officials read, "The care of not more than four children for compensation is permitted ..." Stipulations regarding parking, hours of operation, outdoor play followed that text.

Several residents spoke against modifying the ordinance at all, which would mean that music, art and dance instruction as well as child care would be prohibited. Others voiced support of instructional businesses but said child care should not be allowed in residences. Some residents demonstrated support of in-home child care, reminding council members of the that "it takes a village to raise a child."

The crowd Thursday was sharply divided on the topic, as was the City Council.

Councilman George Sipe was accused of inciting panic and distributing misinformation to residents through an e-mail he circulated about what he termed commercial day care. Councilwoman Debbie Guthrie said she would rather hear from residents after they had been informed of the facts surrounding the issue, including research on the topic of in-home child care.

When the time came for council members to vote on the issue, Sipe recommended requiring a special-use permit for businesses such as music and educational instruction, and completely striking the provision for in-home day care. Under that circumstance, such businesses could be considered on a case-by-case basis, giving city officials the opportunity to consider location, lot size and other matters when considering SUPs. In-home day care would not be allowed at all in the city.

Councilmen Walter Anderson, Tom Kitchens and Guthrie voted against Sipe's suggestion and questioned his handling of the matter when communicating with residents. Sipe argued that Guthrie's accusations were inaccurate and that Anderson proposed the amendments being considered to accommodate one Berkeley Lake resident who already conducts such business in her home. Sipe also complained that the ordinance amendments were being "fast-tracked" through the system without proper notification and discussion.

After more than two hours of hearing residents' opinions, fielding and countering accusations and tweaking proposed wording in the text amendments, council members agreed to postpone any decisions on the day care issue and to give Mayor Lois Salter the opportunity to disseminate information to residents through a special mayor's message. Guthrie also recommended drafting a new amendment that addresses some of the residents' concerns raised Thursday night and earlier in the week in e-mails.

The ordinance amendment providing for music, educational and other instruction will not be modified and will be considered "as is" for adoption next month.

The in-home child care matter will be considered again at the December public hearing and council meeting slated for Dec. 20.