After 10 months of hearings, residents of Hollifield Station in Ellicott City last night neared the close of their fight against a large child-care center proposed for their community.
The Howard County Board of Appeals, which began taking testimony on the building request in April, might vote on the issue at its next meeting in March.
Tutor Time Learning Systems Inc., based in Florida, has asked for a special exception to build a center for up to 200 children at the northwest corner of Old Frederick Road and Rogers Avenue. If approved, it would be one of the largest child-care facilities in the county.
Neighbors oppose the plan, because they think it would overwhelm their community with traffic.
As the fight winds down, county officials have added a measure of uncertainty: They are considering changes to regulations governing "special exception" cases such as child-care centers. These more restrictive rules might end up applying to Tutor Time.
"Anything that's pending is subject to the new regulations," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. "It's really a question of how fast the Board of Appeals will move."
Under the proposed rules, child-care centers with more than 30 clients would need direct access to an "arterial" road. Tutor Time's center doesn't meet that criterion - it would connect to a local road, Stonehouse Drive.
The County Council probably will vote on the regulations in April, McLaughlin said. If approved, the changes would take effect 60 days later.
But, if the Board of Appeals were to approve Tutor Time's request before then, the child-care center would be built under the old rules.
The situation is making both sides unhappy.
"Our whole effort has led to some changes - we were cited as an example of why this system doesn't work real well - and yet we could still lose," said Michael O'Brien, a Hollifield Station resident.
Tutor Time's attorney, Thomas Meachum, said it would be "grossly unfair" to his client if the county changed the rules at the end of the proceedings. "The effect of it, if it's approved, would be that we would have gone through a 12- to 14-month process and then [have been] told at the end of it, `Never mind,' " he said.
Tutor Time turned in its petition in 1999. The county Planning Board voted unanimously in October 1999 to recommend rejection of the center.
Testifying against the plans last night, resident Kathleen Jacobus said that only two other day care centers in Howard are off local roads in residential zones. One serves 75 children, and the other has space for 50, she said.
"I really do feel that it was never the intention of these regulations to allow a large commercial facility in a residential neighborhood," Jacobus said.
More than 1,000 cars use Stonehouse Drive, the road that would serve Tutor Time's center, at peak periods during the day, according to a survey by residents. That's a high amount of traffic for a local road, Jacobus said.
Andrea Kornblau, a Tutor Time district manager, testified during a hearing on the plans last year that the proposed center's size is average for the company. Most of the Tutor Time centers in the United States are in residential areas, she added.
Kornblau said she has visited about half the company's centers and never noticed traffic congestion.