OCDC may appeal ruling
The precedent set by the city council's decision leaves the OCDC with few optionsNews Editor
With their proposed $1.6 million facility in the northwest corner of Bean Park denied by the Madras City Council last week, the Oregon Child Development Coalition is pondering its next move.
OCDC officials, who manage 30 Migrant Head Start programs in 12 Oregon counties, are meeting with an attorney this week to discuss whether to appeal the city's ruling to the state's Land Use Board of Appeals.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," said OCDC Executive Director Juanita Santana. "But we haven't made any decisions yet."
Last Tuesday, 14 Jefferson County residents represented by attorney Dan Van Vactor of Bend successfully convinced a majority of city councilors that the Migrant Head Start's use was not permitted in the R-1 single-family residential zone.
Larry Easter, who owns the East Cascade Assisted Living center next to Bean Park and headed a citizens committee opposed to the proposed building, said he was "content" with the council's ruling.
"It's been such a hard battle," Easter said. "I'm just glad we stopped this government waste."
His committee's appeal hinged on the interpretation of a "day care" and "school" in the context of the R-1 zone and five of the councilors sided with the appellants. Melanie Widmer cast the lone "nay" vote.
Van Vactor argued that the proposed 2.17-acre facility was a day care, which is not specifically stated in section 3.1 of the city's zoning ordinance as a conditional permitted use.
The unfavorable ruling was the first time the federally funded OCDC has ever had a proposed facility denied. OCDC officials believe they would have a strong case if they take the matter before LUBA.
"Everywhere else we have applied we have been approved because they consider us a school and we are the same type of business as the school across the street," said Santana, referring to the Children's Learning Center, which is also located directly across A Street in the R-1 zone.
Meanwhile, opponents of OCDC's expansion plans in northeast Madras say they will continue their fight if need be.
"I am obviously pleased the council agreed with the citizens I represented," Van Vactor said. "And we will vigorously defend any appeal."
But the city council's decision last Tuesday raises new questions about day care centers in Madras and leaves an appeal one of OCDC's only options.
Santana said the OCDC is considering looking for another location to construct a new facility -- one that could serve 100 children of migrant farm workers. Their current facility, which is located at 108 S.W. D St., can serve a maximum of 50.
But if they were to apply for another facility, they could face an uphill battle for approval. The industrial area is the only zone where a day care center specifically stated as a permitted use in Madras' zoning ordinances. And the council's ruling sets a precedence that their program is a day care, not a school. It also suggests that the other two Head Starts in Madras are zoned improperly.
"If the City Council does not consider Head Start a school, but a day care center, then they basically have shut us and any other Head Start program out of Madras," said Rod Walker, OCDC's facilities manager.
The issue was not lost on city councilor Pamela Thomas during the appeal hearing last week. Although she sided with the appellants, she did question Van Vactor as to where a day care was permitted if it did not fall under the permitted conditional uses of the R-1 zone.
Van Vactor said the proper approach would have been a text amendment to the R-1 zone to include a day care in the list of permitted uses. The ordinance states that "[p]ublic buildings, such as a library, fire station, museum, public or private schools, etc." are permitted conditional uses.
Madras Mayor Rick Allen said the issue has caught his attention.
"If the council believes a day care does not meet the definition of a school or public building than we are going to have to find a place in our zoning ordinances for organized day care," Allen said.
As Mayor, Allen does not vote in city council decisions unless a tiebreaker is needed. Although he stopped short of saying how he would have voted if given the opportunity, he did say he felt the OCDC could have prevailed if they had been represented by an attorney.
"I'm not convinced of the numbers of migrant children in the community," he said. "I think the OCDC hid behind that too much. But I do believe the application met the conditional use definition of the R-1 zone."
Camile Harris, an area farmer who challenged the number of potential children the OCDC said needed services, said her group would fight any new application by the nonprofit as long as they continued to claim they needed a facility for 100 children.
"They need to show a need," Harris said. "Accountability is very important especially when budgets are being cut in this day and age. But we are not against a Migrant Head Start program as long as they can prove they are following the federal guidelines."
Despite their setback, OCDC officials still say they need to move out of their current building, which they have leased the past two years from the Children's Learning Center after it moved to its new building next to Bean Park.
And, for now, they are not going anywhere.
"We're not going to leave the community because we're needed here," Santana said.
Added Walker: "We're still going to operate the reduced-size program this summer. We don't want the children to take the brunt of any adverse decisions."