Steamboat officials consider zoning changes to address Routt County child care crisis

An aerial view of the Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs. The red circle identifies an unused area of the property where the company is hoping to operate a child care center.
YVEA / Courtesy Photo

In the midst of a child care crisis in Routt County, Steamboat Springs City Council members are considering a zoning proposal that would allow child care centers to operate within industrial zoned areas.

The proposed zoning language change comes from an Aug. 1 application submitted by the Yampa Valley Electric Association to the Steamboat Planning Commission that seeks to convert roughly 5,000 square feet of its office space into a child care facility.

If approved, the change would allow the child care center to be built at the company’s offices on Lincoln Avenue, but it would also remove use standards in the city’s zoning code to allow any business located within an industrial district to operate a child care center also.

Council members wrestled with the idea proposed by the local energy company. On one hand, they agreed with a staff recommendation against the applicant’s proposal because the change would remove use standards for all properties within city industrial uses.

On the other hand, council members recognized the opportunity to address the crisis in child care availability in Routt County, where the number of families seeking child care exceed the county’s capacity and 77% of families with children under age 6 have both parents in the workforce.

“This is an excellent location for a child care facility,” said Council member Michael Buccino, adding, “a text change is something I take seriously … We don’t like to make text changes for an applicant on a one-off.”

Senior Planning Director Toby Stauffer explained that the application left staff “concerned” over increased impacts for current and future industrial businesses in the city, as she said the change would “further erode the integrity of our industrial districts.”

“Adding other non-industrial uses would be more impactful than beneficial to our community,” Stauffer added. “But we do recognize there is an urgent need for child care in this community.”

In a recommendation provided to council members ahead of their meeting, staff cautioned against allowing the child care center, saying it would, “further constrain the existing and potential uses and businesses in the industrial zone districts.”

The report also noted the allowed use of child care facilities in industrial areas could present safety hazards because of the lack of suitable infrastructure, and it would limit what other types of allowed businesses could be located there. For example, approving the change would mean that future marijuana businesses seeking to locate there would not be allowed.

The YVEA space became available after the internet service provider and YVEA subsidiary, Luminate, relocated its customer service staff next door at its parent company’s office, according to YVEA Finance Director Emily Zvorak.

Zvorak addressed City Council last week, explaining the south building at the YVEA Steamboat Springs location is largely empty and allows for access to an interior green space along with ample parking lot space for drop-off and pick-up activity. Additionally, she noted, the company’s adjacent warehouse housing machinery is located behind a fence.

“We don’t believe that the industrial zoning would have safety concerns for a child care center,” Zvorak said. “Working parents are having a hard time finding care for young children. We were moved by this and just wanted to see if we would be part of the solution.”

Newly elected City Council member Bryan Swintek, who previously served on the city’s Planning Commission, affirmed council’s support to allow an additional child care facility but said the decision highlights a disconnect between the community’s needs and the city’s zoning code.

“Rather than take the win and force the code to do what we want it to do where it doesn’t really make sense, I think we should sit with this and tip (our) hand to try to prioritize our code with what people want,” he said, adding that he hoped a discussion of adjusting zoning codes would be a topic at the council’s upcoming retreat.

Joella West, City Council president pro tem, noted that YVEA zoning proposal lacked clarity on whether its planned child care operation would be welcome to the public or constrained to employees’ children, or whether an operator had been hired to run the facility and if the energy company would provide employee housing to child care staff.

“I think it’s a lovely community-minded idea to put a child care center in there, but this idea hasn’t gone any further than that,” said West. “Given that there is no concrete plan as to how to build and staff the child care center, I am absolutely not prepared to vote to amend the code in order to allow this to move forward.”

Ultimately, the first reading of the zoning ordinance found City Council members voting 6-1 to deny the request from YVEA with City Council President Gail Garey voting against the measure.

Still, the motion approved on first reading by City Council, which Planning Commission members unanimously approved Oct. 26 and council members will consider on second reading Dec. 5, includes some measures to help address child care availability with respect to the city’s zoning zoning rules.

In its current form, the approved motion denies the commercially oriented child care center use allowance for YVEA, but it proposes separate changes to city codes that would allow home-based child care operations within the city’s industrial areas.

According to Stauffer, the home child care zoning amendments are needed to bring the city’s code into compliance with a state law passed in 2021 allowing residential property owners to operate a home child care business from their residential property.

Under state and local laws, a home child care facility, where an individual operates a child care business at their residence for a limited number of children, is regulated differently than the child care center that YVEA is hoping to operate from its offices.

Planning & Community Development Director Rebecca Bessey said the city’s zoning code currently allows for limited residential uses within industrial zones, “so with this change we are being compliant and consistent the state use law.”

“If there is an existing residential use and someone wants to provide a home child care use, they can do that in their residential use in the industrial zone district,” Bessey explained.

From a child care perspective, Meghan Franges, Routt County’s program leader for First Impressions, a division of the state’s Department of Human Services, said any approval that would help add more child care facilities in the county, would be a “great thing.”

A family survey included in the 2023 Routt County Child Care needs assessment found 97% of local families with infants say it is hard to find child care, along with 99% of families with toddlers and 85% of families with preschoolers

And while there were 30 family child care home providers in Routt County prior to the pandemic, that number has fallen to eight, according to Franges.

“I think the issues are more around changing the zoning rules completely, and what this might mean for other businesses that cannot operate near a child care facility,” Franges said.

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