A neighborhood dispute over a Cherrydale daycare facility laid bare some deeper disagreements about the proper role of the Arlington County Board at the body’s Tuesday (May 22) meeting.
The Dalbir family day care, located at a home on the 3900 block of 17th Street N., was asking the Board for a permit to make what might seem like a minor change — instead of supervising five children at the home, its owners wanted to care for up to nine.
Yet that request touched off fierce debate on the Board, which only approved the permit on a 3-2 vote. Board members Erik Gutshall and John Vihstadt cast the dissenting votes.
The dispute largely centered around the day care facility’s impact on parking and traffic on narrow 17th Street N., just off N. Quincy Street. Some neighbors complained to the Board that the day care’s customers and employees have already caused real problems in the area, even before adding capacity for more kids.
The Cherrydale Citizens Association opposed the permit, though the day care — which has been in business for more than two decades, according to the county staff report — is not technically located within the civic association’s boundaries.
Gutshall and Vihstadt argued that those complaints demonstrated that the day care’s owners hadn’t done enough to work with their neighbors, and they supported deferring a vote on the permit. But the other Board members strongly disagreed that it was up to the Board to step into a dispute among just a handful of households.
“This is an issue for the neighbors to resolve among themselves,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “Even very reasonable people can find themselves in disputes between neighbors. It happens across the county on a manner of issues, often related to parking and traffic. But that’s not the role of this Board.”
Vihstadt did acknowledge that it’s “difficult and awkward for us up here to be referees” on such parochial issues, particularly as the county looks to expand access to childcare. Cristol, in particular, has focused on the issue, though the Board has faced pushback from neighbors of other day care centers in recent months.
Gutshall and Vihstadt both urged their colleagues to take the complaints of people in the neighborhood seriously, noting that the Board previously deferred a vote on the permit in April to urge the owners to work with the community more closely to resolve these problems. (Between April and May the day care center made concessions that placated the first neighbor to contact the Board, but other households have since weighed in with their own complaints.)
“To add more density will only cause more trouble on an already troubled street,” Kathy Lash, who rents out a house next to the day care, told the Board.
Vihstadt also pointed to a letter from the Cherrydale Citizens Association echoing those concerns and lamenting that the day care’s owners have “a history of unpleasant interactions with affected residents concerning the operation of their day care.”
“Many different residents have reported that the provider’s family members have repeatedly yelled at, and occasionally cursed at, neighbors in response to their concerns about the operation of the business,” wrote Jim Todd, the civic association’s president.
Manbir Nahal, the son of the day care’s owners, told the Board that he had never heard such concerns from the civic association, and offered to meet with the group. Board member Christian Dorsey even argued that county officials shouldn’t be making decisions based on secondhand accounts of neighborhood arguments.
“They were just reporting what they heard,” Dorsey said. “We are not equipped to use that as a finding of fact with which to judge who has, or has not, been a good neighbor. It’s really beyond the point of what our job is.”
Gutshall pushed back forcefully on that point, arguing that it is “absolutely within the purview of this Board to examine whether the proposed use is consistent with good land use practices in a residential zoning district.” He added that he felt it was “incumbent on the applicant” to reach out to the civic association and assuage their concerns before earning the permit.
(Nahal said he exchanged emails with the civic association president but was unaware of the importance of meeting with the group in person.)
A majority of the Board disagreed that there were grounds to again delay approval of the day care’s request and a motion to defer for another month was voted down 3-2. Cristol, however, did urge the day care’s owners to meet with neighbors about their complaints.
As the county continues to grow in population, Board members acknowledged that this is likely far from the last time they’ll hear about such problems.
“This is just part of Arlington being really crowded,” said Board member Libby Garvey.