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W. Fairlee Child Care Center Looks to Expand in Thetford

  • Stella Star Worcester, 4, watches as her preschool teacher, Vicki Prime, hangs up a painting Worcester just finished at Creative Spirit Child Care Center in the old West Fairlee School Building in West Fairlee last week. The center has been approved for a grant that would allow it to expand into a bigger building and be licensed for more children. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Stella Star Worcester, 4, watches as her preschool teacher, Vicki Prime, hangs up a painting Worcester just finished at Creative Spirit Child Care Center in the old West Fairlee School Building in West Fairlee last week. The center has been approved for a grant that would allow it to expand into a bigger building and be licensed for more children. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Preschoolers Braxton Adams, 5, and Tristan Martiere, 4, laugh while looking at pictures in a book during their preschool class at Creative Spirit Child Care Center in the old West Fairlee School Building last week. Also reading the book is Isabelle Weed, 4. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Preschoolers Braxton Adams, 5, and Tristan Martiere, 4, laugh while looking at pictures in a book during their preschool class at Creative Spirit Child Care Center in the old West Fairlee School Building last week. Also reading the book is Isabelle Weed, 4. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Founder and owner of Creative Spirit Child Care Center, Shelia Bedi of West Fairlee sits in the preschool room in the old West Fairlee School Building in West Fairlee. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Founder and owner of Creative Spirit Child Care Center, Shelia Bedi of West Fairlee sits in the preschool room in the old West Fairlee School Building in West Fairlee. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Braxton Adams, 5, runs to catch up with the rest of his preschool class after choosing a sled during outdoor playtime at Creative Spirit Child Care Center. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Braxton Adams, 5, runs to catch up with the rest of his preschool class after choosing a sled during outdoor playtime at Creative Spirit Child Care Center. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stella Star Worcester, 4, watches as her preschool teacher, Vicki Prime, hangs up a painting Worcester just finished at Creative Spirit Child Care Center in the old West Fairlee School Building in West Fairlee last week. The center has been approved for a grant that would allow it to expand into a bigger building and be licensed for more children. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Preschoolers Braxton Adams, 5, and Tristan Martiere, 4, laugh while looking at pictures in a book during their preschool class at Creative Spirit Child Care Center in the old West Fairlee School Building last week. Also reading the book is Isabelle Weed, 4. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Founder and owner of Creative Spirit Child Care Center, Shelia Bedi of West Fairlee sits in the preschool room in the old West Fairlee School Building in West Fairlee. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Braxton Adams, 5, runs to catch up with the rest of his preschool class after choosing a sled during outdoor playtime at Creative Spirit Child Care Center. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Thetford — When Sheila Bedi opened a child care center in the old West Fairlee School building in 2003, she was coming full circle. The Vershire native had attended the school, and now Creative Spirit Child Care Center’s preschool room occupies what was once her first-grade classroom.

But after years of renting the town-owned building, she’s looking to buy her own place.

“It would be nice to have the business have some equity for itself,” said Bedi, who earned a degree in early childhood education from Johnson State College.

Recently Bedi, 44, found what seemed to her to be a perfect spot — a ranch-style home on West Fairlee Road in Thetford. The brown wooden building, situated on a two-acre lot about a mile from Route 113, offers more space than she has now and would allow Creative Spirit to expand from 25 to 38 children. Thetford’s Development Review Board approved the project last month, and the center was awarded a $300,000 community development block grant by the Vermont Community Development Program to buy the property.

Response from neighbors has been mixed, and earlier this month a group of 13 Thetford residents filed an appeal with the state’s environmental court. But Bedi, who describes herself as a believer in positive thinking, isn’t giving up on the move.

“For a small town girl like me to have come so far, starting a small business, getting this grant,” she said, “it just speaks to the power of manifestation.”

When Bedi started looking to buy, she was drawn to Thetford.

“I just think it’s a really very nice town, and they welcomed me when I was first looking for a space,” said Bedi, a Thetford Academy alumna.

The property, with its open floor plan, immediately caught her eye.

“I walked in and said, ‘I would love to teach preschool in this room,’ ” she said.

Bedi said she imagines creating an “amazing naturescape playground” in the yard, and ticked off the other positive features of the place.

“Each room would open up to the playground, which would be really nice,” she said, “and the whole building would be all for the children and only for the children.”

Bedi has already been approved for a $150,000 loan from the Vermont Community Loan Fund to pay for a septic system upgrade and renovations to the two-bedroom home, including turning a garage into a classroom and installing two kitchenettes and a bathroom.

Should the move survive the appeal, Bedi plans to provide meals for the children, who now bring their own lunches and snacks.

“We already have the staff on board to handle the 38 kids that we want to be licensed for,” she said, but with the food program, they could add a cook to their payroll, which includes four full-time and five part-time employees.

And because it’s within a few miles of the West Fairlee site, she said, “Everyone we do business with now will travel with us.”

The center is licensed for 25 children from 6 weeks to 12 years old. Currently, 27 families use the center, which offers a preschool and full-day child care, and after-school and summer programs. The majority of the families live in Orange County, though some come from other areas, including Newbury and Orford.

“A good share of our business is subsidized folks,” Bedi said.

Jennifer Hollar is deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development, which administers the grant program. The program is designed to address local needs, including housing, economic development, and public services, and funds must primarily benefit people with low and moderate incomes.

Hollar said the review board was impressed with Bedi’s “great reputation and successful track record” and with the town’s support of her project.

Child care is hard to come by, and there are not enough facilities in the state, she said. “We are so excited to support this project because quality child care supports children, their families and their communities. ... It allows all of them to grow and meet their economic potential.”

Creative Spirit has a Five Star rating, the highest possible rating from the state’s Step Ahead Recognition System, which evaluates the quality of child care programs. The rating benefits parents, Bedi said. “When we became a five star ... all our subsidized people were able to add another day onto their week.”

The neighborhood is zoned “village residential,” but a conditional use permit issued by the Development Review Board would allow Bedi to renovate the home and use it as a child care facility. During the process, some neighbors said they were worried the business would lead to increased noise and traffic in the neighborhood. The permit, issued last month, contains several conditions designed to address those concerns.

The center is limited to five large group gatherings, such as open houses, a year, and it must inform neighbors of the events in advance. According to state requirements, the outdoor play area is technically big enough for all 38 children to play outside at once, Bedi said. But to address noise concerns, only 20 children will be allowed outside at a time, except during those special events. The business is also required to hire a professional landscaper to add vegetation along the back property line for noise mitigation. The permit also restricts the business’ hours of operation to 6:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.

Marjorie Power, a Montpelier resident whose rental property abuts the prospective center on the south side, said she supports the project.

Power, who came down for the hearing process, wanted trees planted for screening between the properties and asked that the parking lot, originally sited in front of the home, be built on the north side.

“Everything I had asked for, they did,” she said, “so I didn’t have any problem.”

Power grew up summering on West Fairlee Road in what was once her grandfather’s hunting cabin and later lived in Post Mills year round. She once had an office next to a child care center, and it didn’t bother her at all, she said, “not even in the summer when the windows were open.”

“My guess, based on my experience, is the childcare will be good neighbors.”

And, she said, she prefers the next owners be a known quantity.

“After having neighbors that clear cut the property, I thought, You never know what you are going to get,” Power said, adding that that’s not the case with a child care center. “No one will be playing rock and roll at 2 a.m. ... and by 6:30 p.m., the property will be dark and quiet.”

Power said she can understand opponents’ traffic concerns, but overall she thinks “some NIMBYing” may be involved.

“I think maybe this is a mountain and a molehill,” she said.

Coincidentally, she said, one of her tenants is an appellant; another sends his kids to Creative Spirit.

Julie Corcoran, a friend of Bedi’s who lives on nearby Cross Road, is “very much in support” of the project.

Corcoran isn’t worried about noise or additional traffic on West Fairlee Road, which is busy already, she said. “I don’t think it’s going to create any more noise ... than the lake noise in the summer” from the boats and camps.

A mother of two young children, she said it “would be nice to have some more community, kid-based things (in town).”

Development Review Board member Tim Taylor and his wife, Janet, own Crossroad Farm, which is just down the road from the proposed site. Taylor voted against issuing the permit, but says he’s “a pretty lukewarm dissenter.”

He thought the property in the heavily wooded area, while legally adequate, might prove a little bit tight for 38 children. So, he tried to broker a compromise.

“I couldn’t get either side to budge at all,” he said. It seemed that Bedi felt she needed the numbers to make it work economically, and “the other side just didn’t want it, period.”

Ridge Satterthwaite, one of the appellants, said he was unwilling to comment on the appeal “because the thing is in court.”

More information would be available soon, said Satterthwaite, who lives on West Fairlee Road.

The neighbors are expected to submit to the court a list of their concerns later this month. A court date for a hearing on the appeal has not yet been set.

Bedi says she doesn’t want to be in an adversarial position with anyone over the center, and that a visit to her West Fairlee site would put opponents’ minds at ease.

“I’ve been a good neighbor to everyone, and everyone’s been good neighbors for us,” she said. “We’ve never had a noise complaint.”

So far, an open invitation to visit the center she extended at a Development Review Board hearing this fall has not had any takers, she said. “We invited them to come and hang out with us and not one came.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.