WHEN Elaine Sibley decided to offer child care for six young children in her home, she expected community response to be positive. She knew the need for good-quality care was urgent in this comfortable suburb southwest of Boston. She also knew her credentials were strong: a certificate in early childhood education, long experience in working with young children, and a family day-care license from the state Office for Children. But before Mrs. Sibley could open her doors, neighbors petitioned the Board of Appeals to block her venture. Family day care, they argued, would create traffic and noise, thus changing the character of their pastoral neighborhood and decreasing property values.
``I'm not against day care,'' one neighbor, John Sullivan, told the appeals board during a hearing. ``I'm just against it on Meadowbrook Road.''
This not-in-my-backyard attitude has been surfacing around the country as zoning boards and homeowners' associations seek to limit home-based child care. Here in Massachusetts, an estimated 40 or 50 communities have faced zoning controversies in the past five or six years, according to Michael Coughlin, a spokesman for the Office for Children. No nationwide statistics exist, but Sandra Gellert, president of the Washington-based National Association for Family Day Care, calls it ``an ongoing problem everywhere.''
``For the most part, zoning boards have not caught up with the 1980s,'' Ms. Gellert says. ``They are still operating zoning regulations that are outdated by today's standards.''
Many boards, she explains, ``are still dominated by an older population of a generation ago, when day care wasn't an issue. Even though they recognize that today it is an issue, it still isn't a primary concern to them, so they don't see a need for an immediate change.'' Change will not come, she says, until the majority of people on zoning boards have had a need for child care themselves.
At the same time, Gellert is sympathetic to the challenges boards face in serving all residents fairly. Officials often find themselves caught between people who want to maintain a strictly residential area and those who want child care.
Child care specialists also emphasize the legitimate role planners play in regulating family day care, which is defined as up to six children with one care-giver in a residential setting. ``It's within their right to take a look at any traffic or parking problems that need to be enforced, or anything that affects the overall neighborhood,'' Mr. Coughlin says.
For Sibley, neighbors' concerns about possible noise and traffic came as a surprise, because her eight-room ranch house sits on a 11/3-acre lot. As her attorney, Anne Berry-Goodfellow, says dryly, ``Elaine doesn't live on the third floor of a triple-decker with an elderly lady in bed below her. There is no more normal home occupation than this.''
Other neighbors agreed, voicing their support at the appeals board hearing.
``Six children is a pretty small number,'' Shelby Mudarri, Sibley's next-door neighbor, told the group. ``In my day, the majority of families in our community had more than that. The town has a responsibility to encourage good day care. As these services become more available, I do believe the town becomes more valuable.''
In the end, that view prevailed. After nearly four hours of discussion, the Board of Appeals granted Sibley a special permit, good for two years. It stipulates that she can care for children between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Children cannot play in the front yard, and parents must turn around in her driveway rather than at the end of the cul-de-sac.
Initially, not everyone was pleased with the decision. But, says Sibley, a friendly woman who is the single parent of two sons, ``I have always loved being in this neighborhood and hope we can continue a mutually respectful relationship.''
Nationwide, 200,000 family day-care homes - about one-fifth of the total number in existence - are registered or licensed. But even many licensed providers, Gellert says, ``live in fear that today's the day they're going to get a phone call or find someone at their front door saying, `Cease and desist. You're out of compliance. Your neighbors reported you.'''
Often just one complaint sets off a zoning dispute. ``Sometimes one neighbor doesn't like another,'' Gellert explains. ``Or they don't like the way they painted their driveway. It's a way of getting back. I've heard some crazy stories about people who have had complaints filed against them for absolutely inconsequential reasons, none of which had anything to do with day care.''
In other communities, debates hinge on the question: Is family day care is a business or a service? The Internal Revenue Service considers it a business. Providers see it as a customary use of a home.
``You don't make a lot of money at it,'' says Susan Twombly, family day-care project manager at the Child Care Resource Center in Cambridge, Mass. ``So if towns treat them as small businesses and impose regulations and fees, that can make it a real hardship. Being treated as a business isn't always appropriate.''
For the future, Ms. Twombly and others believe, problems will ease as local officials become better informed.
``Planners are generally intelligent, good people,'' says Gwen Morgan, who teaches day-care policy at Wheelock College in Boston. ``They just need a little more knowledge about what family day care is and its value in their community.'' Already Gellert sees attitudes changing. ``Zoning boards are beginning to look a little more favorably on family day care,'' she says.
In Massachusetts, a recent amendment to the state zoning code prohibits local officials from regulating family day care unless a town's zoning bylaws contain a specific amendment to that effect.
Similar legislation passed two months ago in New Jersey classifies family day-care homes as home occupations. As such, they are not subject to more stringent zoning restrictions than apply to all home occupations in the residential zone in which the home is situated.
Additional support has come from the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C. A recent position paper on licensing, based on recommendations by the American Planning Association, maintains that for zoning purposes, family day-care homes should be regarded as a residential use.
``Family day care is indistinguishable from family occupancy in terms of traffic, noise, effects on neighbors, and other factors,'' the paper states. ``It should be permitted without further restriction in any zone in which families are permitted to live or in which working families might need child care services. Zoning stipulations should not make additional requirements for the protection of children, because that is the responsibility of state licensing.''
Twombly sums up the philosophy of many child-care activists. ``I understand some concerns,'' she says, ``but children need to exist somewhere. If they can't be in residential areas, where can they be? And what does exclusion say about how we as a society feel about children? This is an important form of day care, and it's an important thing to preserve.''