Change sought in I.F. rules governing in-home child care

If Karri Sloan had a one-story house, her life would be much simpler — and she could make more money.

Sloan, who dreams of running an in-home preschool, is leading a push to change the city’s zoning ordinance. The change would allow home-based businesses located in multilevel homes to serve more patrons.

Idaho Falls sets the number of children that can be served by an in-home preschool or child-care center based on a combination of the zoning ordinance and fire code. No more than one child can be served for each 35 square feet in a house. In addition, no home can claim more than a quarter of its square footage for business purposes.

The rub: the city only counts the ground floor in the square footage calculation. So a 3,000-square-foot home with a basement, ground floor and second story of equal size — a house like Sloan’s house — will be counted only as a 1,000-square-foot home.

Sloan, 31, said that’s “discriminatory” because it favors one- or two-level floor plans over multilevel homes.

“I can only have seven kids,” she said.

That will make it difficult to run her school at a profit. Sloan plans to charge around $65 per month at her school, which she will call “Sprouts.” It will open in the fall, she said, and already has seen strong demand.

“I’m full with my numbers as it is, and I have a few more families that want to sign up if the code changes,” she said.

If all three of her floors counted, rather than only the ground floor, she could serve the maximum of 12 students city ordinances allow. That would mean a 70 percent increase in her revenue.

Sloan found a backer in freshman Councilman Dee Whittier, who drafted a proposed ordinance changing the way in which square footage would be counted. He called the existing system “arbitrary.”

“Why should it be different if you have a two-story house as opposed to a one-story house?” he said.

Brad Cramer, city planning and building director, said the proposed ordinance would allow most houses in the city to host 12 children at an in-home child care center or preschool.

“The data we are trying to provide … is to really think about what it does in terms of impact to a neighborhood,” he said. “Because we are talking about homes in neighborhoods, where people may or may not want to live next to a day care that has 12 kids at a time.”

A typical home produces only one car trip per day during the evening rush hour, but a child-care center produces around 10, he said, which could mean heavier impacts on neighbors.

The Planning Department is not making a recommendation on the draft ordinance, Cramer said.

But Whittier said there is little evidence that the increased traffic would burden neighbors.

“If it was a serious problem, I think we would hear a lot more about it already,” he said.

If there is a problem with having 12 children in a home preschool, Whittier said, then it ought to be directly addressed.

“If there is a problem with the number of children, let there be a limit on the number of children in general,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s right that one style of house has a different way of being measured.”

Whittier said he expects the draft ordinance to come before the City Council soon.

Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt said in an email that the existing system is not working well. Some people running home preschools, she said, simply are disregarding the rules as a consequence.

“For those who are running preschool programs, the planning and zoning statute makes no sense in regards to countable space and the number of children allowed,” she said. “Due to this, we have people within Idaho Falls running preschools with more children than their space technically allows. I believe that if we write a law, it should be one that not only makes sense, but should be reasonably enforceable.”

There are 45 home preschools and child-care facilities licensed in the city, Cramer said. But he, too, said he knows that many others are operating without licenses.

Sloan is working to obtain her license before her preschool opens, a process that includes a background check and inspection of her home by Health Department officials, among other steps designed to protect children. She agreed the existing ordinance discourages licensure.

“There are a lot of preschools that are not licensed because of this ordinance,” she said. “I actually considered doing that because this is so frustrating, but I’m a rule-follower.”

Sloan, who has four children of her own, said in-home preschooling offers children a more nurturing environment that the city ought to encourage.

“All of my kids have gone to in-home preschools, and I just love them,” she said. “I think they’re a great option for that in-between time of home and school…. It’s more familiar so they are able to be more comfortable. It’s less institutional.”

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.