Aseemingly small change at the state agency that issues licenses to home day cares could mean huge consequences in Fairfax County: Hundreds of providers may be forced to drastically reduce the number of children on their rolls.

County officials have pledged to find a solution that averts such an outcome. But in a region where the demand for child care is so high that some parents get on waiting lists before a pregnancy, the prospect of fewer slots has both providers and parents worried.

“There’s already a major shortage of day care,” said Mary Braxton, vice president of the Virginia Alliance of Family Child Care Associations. “The big question is, where would all those extra kids go?”

The problem stems from discrepancies between the number of children the state allows in home day cares and the number permitted under some counties’ zoning ordinances. While the state allows up to 12, counties are often more restrictive. Fairfax, for example, allows only seven children in centers in single-family homes.

In Fairfax, county officials do not typically verify whether day cares abide by the local limits unless neighbors complain. As a result, many providers have been following the state’s more generous guidelines.

But under the new state requirement, which took effect July 1, home day cares applying for Virginia licenses must complete a form saying they are in compliance with county regulations. In Fairfax, that could mean some centers will be forced to cut their enrollments by more than 40 percent.

Providers said that if that is the case, the first children to go probably would be those whose care is paid for by government subsidy. Day cares tend to make less money from those children, and the reimbursement checks are sometimes slow to arrive.

“That’s the hardest part — thinking about which families you’d have to do this to,” said Cece Holman, who runs a day care out of her home in Reston.

Susan Gallier, who has had a home day care in Burke for 16 years, said that if the county does not intervene, the change could push some providers out of business.

“To tell you the truth, I went through so much to get the state license, I thought that was it,” she said. “I thought they were the highest power.”

Apparently, many others did, too.

According to the county, there are about 480 state-licensed home day cares in Fairfax. Most of them — nearly 400 — have state licenses for 12 children, and of those only a handful have successfully finished a county permitting process that grants exceptions under local rules for as many as 10 children. That means the vast majority are allowed only seven but probably have several more.

It is unclear how many children or day cares would be affected by the new rules, but Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said, “I think we all know it’s a lot.”

While the problem seems to be garnering the most attention in Fairfax, it is one that is affecting at-home day cares across the state to varying degrees, depending on the regulations in their jurisdictions, Braxton said.

In some places, including Arlington County, most providers are in compliance with local zoning rules and will not have to trim their rolls, she said. Others, such as Prince William County, already allow up to 12 children for providers with a special permit.

But Loudoun County could face a situation similar to Fairfax’s because its per-home limit is lower than the state’s. A planning official there said his office recently began getting calls from concerned providers.

Providers, parents on edge

The issue is an especially emotional one in Fairfax. It has prompted impassioned objections from providers who say the change will further squeeze their modest businesses, as well as from parents who cringe at the thought of leaving family day cares that they have come to trust and that tend to be more affordable and flexible than corporate centers. Some parents said they fear they would not be able to find new care at all, because shortages are so bad that many providers have waiting lists of more than a year.

The county has responded by implementing a grace period for existing day cares that it says will last well into next year, and members of the Board of Supervisors have promised to explore longer-lasting solutions, including increasing per-home limits and reducing the cost and complexity of getting a special permit.

But that has not calmed some parents, who worry that they will be forced to look for new day-care options.

Finding a flexible, trustworthy provider was so hard for Springfield mother Felicia Kleinfelt that when she and her husband recently decided to buy a home, they chose to stay in Springfield over a more affordable area, largely because they did not want to face looking for new child care for their 2-year-old and 4-year-old.

As a technical writer, Kleinfelt works varying hours and sometimes needs day care only 10 or 15 hours a week. She is afraid that would make her children the first at their day care to be cut.

“That’s just the reality,” she said.

Grace period

To draw attention to the issue, Fairfax day cares organized phone-call and letter-writing campaigns and showed up en masse at a June supervisors meeting.

Three board members, led by Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), responded by recommending the grace period to allow providers time to apply for special permits for up to 10 children and reduce their enrollment through attrition. They also asked county staffers to draft an amended zoning ordinance that would raise the special-permit limit to 12, the same number allowed under state regulations.

But at a packed town hall meeting last week, providers contended that those steps will not be enough. They told horror stories that they had heard from colleagues who have tried for a special permit; how the application and requirements are so confusing that some just gave up; how the fee alone is $1,100; and how some expended months of effort only to be denied a permit because a single neighbor showed up at their public hearing before the zoning board to complain about the extra traffic.

Many providers called for the county to raise the limit for day cares without a special permit from seven children to 10 or 12, which would allow many providers to avoid a county review.

Among those who spoke was Malini Cunje, who has been running a day care out of her home near Vienna for more than a decade. Her enrollment is 12. She said in an interview that she typically gets three calls a day from parents asking to be added to her waiting list, which she estimated is up to a year and a half long. It is not unusual for prospective parents to add their names before they are expecting a child, she said.

“If this isn’t solved, it’s going to make things a lot worse,” she said.

County officials said at the town hall meeting that they are working to make the special permit process less confusing and possibly less costly. They also said they are confident that the Board of Supervisors ultimately will support increasing the number of children allowed under a special permit in single-family homes from 10 to 12.

But in interviews later, several supervisors expressed hesitation about raising the limit for those without a permit.

Final decisions by the board probably will come early next year.

In the meantime, Gallier, the Burke provider, said she is trying to stay optimistic about a solution.

“I’m feeling confident,” she said. “But maybe it’s just that I want it so much, I’m not even letting myself think about the alternative.”