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Jim Kenyon: No Kidding Around

A nuclear power plant, a strip club, a Wal-Mart, I could understand. But a child care center? Really?

Yes, really.

A dozen Thetford property owners have gone to court to block the Creative Spirit Child Care Center from moving into their Post Mills neighborhood. I guess even kids aren’t wanted in some backyards.

Cleopatra Mathis, a poet and Dartmouth College creative writing professor, assured me that she and her neighbors are not driven by “some hatred of small children and affordable day care.”

That’s a relief.

Still, I have a difficult time getting my head around the notion that a place that provides a safe, healthy learning environment for young children of working parents could be bad for a neighborhood.

For 10 years, Sheila Bedi has operated Creative Spirit out of the old West Fairlee School building on Route 113, where she offers year-round child care at a price that working-class families can afford. About 70 percent of the families receive government subsidies to help pay for care, which tops out at $245 a week for children who attend full-time.

Creative Spirit attracts families from not only West Fairlee but also neighboring communities such as Thetford and Vershire. Her state license allows her to care for up to 25 kids, ages six weeks to 12 years.

But she’s outgrowing the space that she rents from the town of West Fairlee. In the summer, when school is out of session, there’s a waiting list to get in. A few years ago, Bedi, 45, started thinking about moving Creative Spirit to a larger place that she could call her own.

A vacant one-story house for sale on West Fairlee Road in Post Mills seemed ideal. The house, situated on a two-acre lot close to Lake Fairlee, featured a large yard and was centrally located on the bus routes for both the Rivendell and Thetford school districts. (A big part of Bedi’s business, which has eight employees, is providing after-school care for children with working parents.)

“I wanted to continue serving the families who depended on us, as well as add new families,” she said. “The house in Post Mills was perfect.”

Last spring, she reached an agreement to buy the property for $287,000, contingent on the project receiving town approval. In November, the Thetford Development Review Board signed off on Bedi’s application for a conditional use permit.

The conditions allowed Creative Spirit to care for up to 38 children on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. To help alleviate some neighbors’ concerns about noise, Bedi agreed to limit the number of children playing outside to 20 at a time.

Vermont officials, recognizing that affordable child care is in short supply, embraced Bedi’s plans. Last fall, the Vermont Community Development program awarded her a $300,000 grant to buy the property. At a ceremony in Brattleboro, where the grant was announced, Bedi posed for photos with Gov. Peter Shumlin and Thetford Selectman Tig Tillinghast.

Bedi also secured a $150,000 loan from the Vermont Community Loan Fund to pay for renovations, which include turning the house’s two-car garage into a classroom, and building a new septic system. To mitigate noise from the playground, Bedi budgeted nearly $10,000 to plant trees along the property line and install fencing.

But some neighbors hired Dan Hershenson, a top-notch Norwich lawyer, to fight Bedi’s proposal in state environmental court, which hears appeals of town zoning decisions. The first hearing is scheduled for Oct. 7, but it could take a year or so for the case to wind its way through the court system.

“We still have some things to figure out, but I’m not giving up,” Bedi told me. “A lot of people have invested a lot of time to help me. I don’t want to let anyone down.”

On Monday, I knocked on doors in the neighborhood and called residents to get a better grasp of why such a seemingly benign project has created so much opposition. Mathis was the only neighbor that I reached, and she was good enough to talk with me.

“It’s simply the wrong place for this enterprise,” said Mathis, who has lived in the neighborhood for five years. “I’m a writer, and I moved out here because it was quiet and in the country. It’s a very peaceful, bucolic neighborhood.

“I had four children. I know what kind of noise they make when they are playing. A day care center with (38) kids during work time is going to be really, really disruptive.”

Increased traffic is also a “considerable worry,” said Mathis. The child care center is proposed for a portion of West Fairlee Road that is “narrow and curvy,” she said. “There is already a lack of safety on the road.”

Mathis pointed out that Creative Spirit already has a home — in West Fairlee — so it’s not as though she and her neighbors are trying to put the child care center out of business.

On Monday afternoon, I stopped by Creative Spirit. The lights were dimmed. A Zen lullaby wafted through the room from a CD player. Some children napped on mats. Others flipped through picture books.

“We have a Waldorf flavor,” said Bedi. “It’s a very peaceful environment.”

Downstairs, West Fairlee Town Clerk Rhonda Cook worked in her office. Noise that the children generate hasn’t been an issue for her, she told me.

“I hear them laughing outside on the playground. That’s about it,” she said. “I guess that might offend some people.”

I guess so, but to me, the sound of children laughing is the sound of hope for the future.