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Gary Council approves variance to let daycare facility operate in residential zone

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A Gary daycare operator will be able to expand, but some city officials worry that could lead more businesses to try to move into residential neighborhoods. The city council Tuesday approved a use variance, letting POLO Childcare operate in a residential zone in the 1900 block of Central Avenue — against the recommendation of the board of zoning appeals and the city administration.

Owner Sonya Broden said the business has outgrown its current location nearby. "I would just like to expand the business so we can keep it going and keep the community growing," Broden told council members.

While it's relatively common for the city to grant permission to let people operate a daycare facility out of their homes, City Attorney Rodney Pol said this case is different because the owner doesn't actually plan to live there. "When an individual doesn't use a residence as a residence and simply uses it only for commercial purposes, it requires a use variance," Pol explained.

He argued that it didn't meet the criteria for a use variance, mainly because the property would still have value as an actual home. He worried that lowering that bar could encourage other types of businesses to try to move into residential neighborhoods.

Council member Darren Washington shared his concerns about setting a harmful precedent. "This, to me, is similar to the problem that we're facing with Airbnbs, issues pertaining to, potentially, businesses being taxed at three percent," Washington said. "We're a city that needs those finances."

Council member Lori Latham suggested having the city's economic development department help Broden find a more appropriate location. "We do want your childcare in our city," Latham told Broden. "We do you want you to continue operating in our city. We just want to make sure that we begin to respect and we continue to respect our zoning codes."

But others disagreed. Council member Linda Barnes-Caldwell didn't think neighbors should get to decide whether daycare facilities should be able to open in residential properties. "If she's doing a good job and the service is required and she needs to expand, I think we should let her expand," Barnes-Caldwell said.

None of the neighboring property owners weighed in for or against Broden's request. The council ultimately approved the variance by a vote of seven to two.

Michael Gallenberger is a news reporter and producer that hosts All Things Considered on 89.1 FM | Lakeshore Public Media.