By Ian Munro, contributor
Even though available childcare remains scarce around Harrisonburg, only nine applications for special permits to expand child-care facilities have been filed in the city and Rockingham County since 2015.
And because of the tangle of laws and provisions governing the permitting process, it’s even more rare for these permits to win approval. These permits allow a provider to be recognized as a major family day home, which is a state licensed location that can take care of between five and 12 children who are not related to the caretaker, at one time.
Brandi Dacko, of Rockingham County, runs Flip Flop Farms Child Care based in her home. She is a registered provider but would need to a different state license to oversee more children.
“I’m inspected four times a year unannounced by the USDA food program, which I’m signed up for,” Dacko says, “But I’m not allowed to have more than four [children unrelated to the provider] because I am not state licensed.”
She sought to expand her child care facility to become a major family day home but has run up against a wall of red tape. Since 2015, Rockingham County has had only three formal applications for major family day home status. Of these applications, one was successful, one was withdrawn, and one was denied.
Dacko didn’t even get that far when she started the process.
As part of Dacko’s special use permit, she would essentially need to win regulatory approval of her driveway, which she shares with neighbors. Currently, her business allows for what’s called “a low volume commercial entrance,” but in order to care for more than four children, she’d need approval for a high-volume commercial entrance, which would allow more than 50 trips — drop-offs and pick-ups — per day.
Dacko said she wants to be state licensed to offer more flexible care to her customers.
“Even if the county could work with me to increase my numbers to six,” Dacko said. “[If parents] need me to watch their child on a day they’re not enrolled to come, I could do that, but right now I can’t offer that service since I can only have four children.”
Dacko’s home, located off of Pleasant Valley Road, is about 750 feet up the driveway from the intersection with the closest other home.
“[My driveway] didn’t meet the sight distance requirement,” Dacko said. A “stopping sight distance” takes into account how far a driver can see something that would cause the vehicle to stop, such as a school bus stop, as well as how far it takes a speeding vehicle to come to a stop.
Brad Riggleman, one of the VDOT land use engineers who reviewed Dacko’s pre-application, said part of Virginia’s road safety difficulties stem from the 1932 Byrd Act of Virginia, passed during the Great Depression to allow the state to take over many county roads.
“[The roads] came about in a time where VDOT didn’t look at it, it really wasn’t taken into consideration,” Riggleman said.
Pleasant Valley Road was one of many roadways that received an easement through the Byrd Act.
“So most of our roads have not been designed for any type of a true standard,” Riggleman said. “They just morphed into existence over the years, so what that has brought us to is many, many driveways, out there that just don’t meet sight distance.”
However, there is a county school bus stop along that stretch of Pleasant Valley Road.
Doug Alderfer, assistant superintendent for Rockingham County Public Schools, said there are key differences between buses and businesses, such as day cares like Dacko’s. For instance, the height of a school bus makes it much more visible to other vehicles.
“There’s so many of those factors,” Alderfer said.
Alderfer confirmed the presence of the bus stop at the end of Dacko’s driveway.
Dacko said she doesn’t understand why her driveway would cause such a problem for buses when there’s already a school bus stop there.
“If they could possibly help remove some of the obstacles, or maybe understand that since it is a designated bus stop for the schools, why can’t it be acceptable for me and my business?” Dacko asked.
When the schools consider a bus stop dangerous, the school system officials “typically will work with the family to find an alternate place for us to pick the child up,” Alderfer said. “They’ll either take the kid to another bus stop, or we’ll create a bus stop at a safe location and the parent will typically drive the child to that location, and that’s where we pick them up.”
But the school system doesn’t have a role in helping a day care provider in a quest for permitting.
“I think really people have to just realize they make a request to whoever the powers that be, for the special use permits and then ultimately that’s the deciding factor,” Alderfer concludes.
The land use engineers did offer Dacko an option to satisfy the regulatory concerns about the driveway: Dacko could pave a separate section between her house to her neighbor’s driveway that intersects with Pleasant Valley.
“To me, this is not really a feasible option since this is not my property,” she said.
With the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area considered a childcare desert based on the high demand and insufficient supply or daycare spots, Dacko said she’s frustrated at the bureaucratic barriers that exist.
“I’m just trying to be a responsible child care provider,” she said, “and I can’t.”