Co-op Preschool Works to Bring Childcare to the KP

Barriers in the permitting process led to a creative pivot. The co-op hopes to be back in business next fall.


Living in a rural community has its benefits: open space, trees, and wildlife. And it has its drawbacks. The infrastructure that cities take for granted – public transportation, the pipes that bring water to buildings and take sewage away – are nonexistent.

While those infrastructure gaps are part of daily living on the Key Peninsula, for a group trying to bring childcare to the community, they can lead to nearly insurmountable barriers in meeting permitting requirements.

“The Growth Management Act was designed to limit growth in rural areas, but people do live in rural areas, and they need childcare,” said Susan Paganelli, co-director of the KP Partnership for a Healthy Community. “Pierce County talks a good game about helping small businesses get up and running, but it is so difficult.”

The Key Peninsula Co-op Preschool received a $150,000 grant from the Pierce County Early Childhood Network Child Care Capacity Initiative in 2023 to transform its preschool location in the Lakebay Community Church into a full-time childcare site for children from infancy to age 5. The grant funded architectural planning, permitting, and construction costs. The KP Partnership provided advice and connection to community resources.

“We are a childcare desert,” Kim Shaw, the director of the preschool, said. There is currently no licensed childcare on the Key Peninsula. A study estimated a need for 200 spaces. The preschool board agreed to close the school for the year, with the hope of opening it in the fall of 2024 for up to 70 children.

“We thought that getting licensed for childcare would be the headache,” Shaw said. “But that was the easy part. The licensors came out, told us the things that would need to be changed, and we felt we could do that. It was when we started submitting permit requests to Pierce County that all sorts of things came up.”

They had their first customer information meetings with the county in June and August of 2023. The meetings included representatives from Pierce County Planning and Public Works, Pierce County Fire Protection Bureau, and the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department. “They were supposed to give us all the information we needed to clear the hurdles,” Shaw said.

Someone from the fire protection bureau told them they would need a sprinkler system for fire safety. “Don’t worry,” the staff person said. “You can just hook up to the main.”

Shaw was incredulous. “Where do they think we are?” she said. A solution — to build a water tower — was out of the question due to both space and cost.

Ken Rice, the county fire marshal, came out personally to talk about what changes they could make in the plans — adjusting doors and access to other parts of the building so that the building would be safe without a sprinkler system. Those changes also meant that the maximum number of children they could serve was 38.

Months later, after the final design was nearly complete, they heard from the health department that the building would need to have a Group A well. Dan Whitmarsh, the church pastor, said they discovered that the church well was not even in the Pierce County records. What it will take to upgrade, or even if that is possible, is yet to be determined.

A week and a half after being told about the well, the co-op heard from the county again, this time from Planning and Public Works. “They told us that if we are going to serve more than 25 children, we have to apply for a conditional use permit,” Shaw said. That might require any number of studies, including a traffic analysis, a tree canopy count, and an environmental impact statement. At press time they had not been told what studies would be required, but they could be expensive. The group is reluctant to decrease the number of slots to 25. “At some point, it just isn’t worth it,” Shaw said.

She and her group looked at alternatives.

The Key Peninsula Lutheran Church on Lackey Road and the KP Highway NW has a space big enough for nine children and is suitable for infant care. While the larger meeting space in the church could be partitioned for older children, the permitting roadblocks would be like those for the Lakebay Community Church. Given all the restrictions and requirements, Shaw doesn’t think anyone can build or convert current buildings on the Key Peninsula to meet the childcare needs of the community.

The limitations led them to pivot.

Washington State allows for outdoor preschool for children 2 1/2 and older. The KP Lutheran Church has three acres of woods and has offered that as a location. “A third of the kids in Norway go to nature-based preschool,” Shaw said. “We will raise healthy, adventuresome KP kids.”

They are working on logistics and talking to several outdoor programs in the state. The plan is to focus on ages 2 1/2 to 4. There are pre-K programs at Evergreen and Vaughn Elementary schools, “So there is at least some childcare on the peninsula for those kids,” Shaw said. She hopes to open by early fall with 15 children and then add 15 more kids several months later.

This summer, the co-op will offer childcare for nine children from 3 to 30 months old at the Lutheran Church site.

The co-op preschool will reopen its doors this fall as the other planning moves forward.

Shaw does not intend to stop there. She and her group plan to apply for an early childhood education grant that could cover the cost of remodeling the Lakebay Community Church for those children up to 2 1/2, and they are already talking to Key Pen Parks about expanding the outdoor preschool program.