The future of Chalk Hill, a former school building on Fan Hill Road now owned by the town, is uncertain. Some residents want to close it in a "mothball" state until a long-term use is decided upon, while others want it to become a community center.
Dawn Ryan, director of the Monroe Early Learning Center, a private day operating in the building, cannot wait long for an answer. She needs a special exception permit to stay in the building and has families, who have to know if she will still be there before enrolling their children in the program.
Last Thursday, a Planning & Zoning Commission hearing was held on Ryan's application. It was closed without a decision, pending Town Attorney Jack Fracassini's interpretation over whether or not town regulations allowing a nursery school in a residential zone with a permit also applies to a day care center.
Commissioners also asked if a private business should benefit from operating in a municipal building, whether the application represented "spot zoning", if the parking lot lighting was adequate and if the town would agree to having a pad and an enclosure for the Dumpster.
"My belief is that a nursery school may have been what the use was called 20 years ago," said Town Planning Administrator David Killeen, who researched the issue.
History of the Day Care
The Monroe Early Learning Center used to be called Jockey Hollow Child Care when it opened at Jockey Hollow School in 2001 with Ryan as director. It was overseen by the Board of Education and allowed town teachers and police officers to enroll their children, so they could work during the day while knowing their children were being cared for.
But when the Board of Education decided to close Chalk Hill as a school and turn it over to the town, the classroom space was needed at Jockey Hollow and the daycare could not stay.
Ryan worked with First Selectman Steve Vavrek, then-interim director of Parks & Recreation Frank Bent and Fracassini and negotiated a lease to operate at Chalk Hill as a private day care.
The Monroe Early Learning Center now has 21 children from 19 families enrolled there and Ryan wants to expand to 44 children, but she said the uncertainty of its status at Chalk Hill has put those hopes in flux.
Kevin Solli, an engineer with The Kimball Group, represented the day care center at the hearing. He said it is a fully licensed and certified child care facility, using two classrooms and an empty one for storage at Chalk Hill.
Solli said that of 12 licensed child care facilities in town, eight of them are located in residential zones.
"This is the continuing of a use that has served members of the community for 10 years," he said. "We respectfully ask the commission to approve this."
Because of the pressures of time for the families in deciding whether or not to keep their children in the program, Solli asked that the commission make its decision the same night.
Commission alternate, Jane Flader, said a private individual is benefiting by operating in a municipal building.
Of the question over whether a nursery school could also mean a day care center in the town regulations, Vice Chairman Patrick O'Hara, who was acting as chairman following Richard Zini's resignation earlier in the day, said, "There's a difference between a day care and a nursery school. It says any use not specifically listed is not an approved use."
Solli contended that it's open to the commission's interpretation. "It's our position that a nursery school can be all encompassing," he added.
O'Hara said in order to properly evaluate the parking for the day care, the commission has to know the use of the entire facility. But Solli said what happens to the rest of the building is out of his client's control. However, he said there is plenty of parking right now.
Commissioner Karen Martin asked Solli if the day care is affiliated with the town and when he said "no" she said, "So you are a private entity. Can you tell us your interpretation of spot zoning? Are any of these in a municipal building in the town of Monroe?"
John Kimball of The Kimball Group said the YMCA has a day care program at Fawn Hollow Elementary School.
But Martin said that is not a municipal building. "The YMCA is under the auspices of the Board of Education, because that is a Board of Education building. You're asking for spot zoning in a municipal building."
Solli said, "We're asking for a nursery school in a residential zone."
Martin asked if the day care is under the auspices of the Parks & Recreation Department, which is also in Chalk Hill. When Solli said no, Martin asked if it's the only private business operating there right now. Solli replied, "I believe that is correct."
Cathleen Lindstrom, a commission alternate said, "On the likelihood that this is approved, we would set a precedent. Other businesses could have uses in a municipal building in this town."
When O'Hara asked whether it is a day care or a nursery school, Solli said the Monroe Early Learning Center is state certified for both functions. Kimball added that the day care embeds a nursery school platform within its program.
O'Hara asked, "What are you doing with the Dumpsters? Should the town follow its own standard and have a pad and an enclosure?"
He also asked what the hours of operation are and was told 7 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. Then he expressed concerns about the lighting outside the building and asked if it could be made less intrusive to the neighbors.
First Selectman Steve Vavrek, "as landlord of the building", was asked if the town would be willing to comply on the Dumpster and the lighting.
"I would like to think we would make it as compliant as we can," Vavrek said.
Martin asked, "As a landlord is it your intent to seek other tenants?"
Vavrek said RFQs have been sent out.
Martin said, "Spot zoning comes to mind when I think of leasing space to a private business in a municipal building. It's similar to leasing part of town hall to a fast food restaurant."
The first selectman said other towns lease space in municipal buildings to entities such as the United Way and Center Stage theater. Vavrek also pointed out that the Center for Women & Families currently has an office at Monroe Town Hall.
"It can be done," he said. "It's just a matter of working closely with the Planning & Zoning Commission."
Martin said, "You're saying you think it's okay to put municipal uses in a building no matter the location?"
O'Hara said different towns have different regulations.
Vavrek said the day care is a permitted use in the Chalk Hill location, according to his interpretation of the rules. O'Hara told the first selectman it is not his place to interpret the regulations.
Ellen Hamilla, who lives near Chalk Hill, said she is not sure whether she would support a community center there because of the traffic, but as far as the day care center goes, she said, "It's been there so long, I think I would support that."
Sue Koneff said, "I am in total support of the day care center at Chalk Hill."
Frank Bent marvelled at the work Ryan and her staff does and said, "I would like to see this continue for Monroe. I hope Parks & Recreation continues in the building and that this will grow into a community center."
Nick Kapoor, who is chairman of the Democratic Town Committee and a Town Council member, also spoke in support of the day care.
Dee Dee Martin, a town council member and a longtime teacher at the Gingerbread Schoolhouse in Monroe, said, "I guess I'm a competitor of Ms. Ryan's. I rise in support of this program. It's an excellent program and an asset to the community."