When Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy learned about plans for a massive H-2A housing complex in an uninhabited industrial area in western Santa Maria, members quickly mobilized to oppose the proposal.

Within a week, the Santa Maria Planning Commission received over 60 written comments objecting to the project — which at one point aimed to house up to 3,600 workers, making it one of the largest labor housing complexes in the state — and decided to pull the item from the agenda until a future date.

The majority of the comments, including a detailed letter from the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance, expressed concern about potential health risks and isolation for workers, as well as the overall need for further community input on the project. 

"It was clear to staff that additional work needed to be done before the project could come forward," city Assistant Attorney Heather Whitham said, adding that there is no set date for the project to be reconsidered. "We think it's going to require a lot of discussion and research."

The proposal, brought forward by developer and Santa Barbara County Planning Commissioner Dan Blough, requested that farmworker housing be allowed as a conditional use in an area known as the Donati Property within the Area 9 Specific Plan, a largely undeveloped site zoned for industrial and commercial development north of Betteravia Road between E and A streets.

The item also included a request for a planned development permit for the actual project, which would house seasonal agricultural laborers brought to the United States through the H-2A program in industrial shell buildings built over approximately 18 acres.

Jennifer Camacho, of labor rights organization Lideres Campesinas, said their organization already faces challenges in providing outreach to H-2A workers about their rights since they tend to be isolated from the community. She said grouping thousands of workers in a rural area would only make the problem worse.

"Just imagine allowing all employers to have farmworkers in once place," Camacho said. "I'll leave everyone with this question: Is it really necessary to have discussions on how to separate our essential workers from our community, or should we discuss ways to integrate them into our society?" 

The letter from the CRLA noted that the project is not consistent with the city's goals for farmworker housing outlined in the city's Housing Element, which states a need for multi-family, single-family and low-income housing for farmworkers. 

"If the city is going to approve a plan amendment it should be for low-income housing and or farmworker multifamily or single-family housing, which is what is needed per the Housing Element, not single occupancy or dorm style employee housing," CRLA Districting Attorney Corrie Arellano said.

The letter went on to outline the inadequacy of the environmental and air quality reviews conducted for the project and other documented impacts that make the area unsuitable for high-density housing.

According to the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Area 9 Specific Plan, where the proposed housing would be located, the development of the area could "result in the use, transport or creation of hazardous materials, which could place such materials in proximity to residences," causing "significant and unavoidable" impacts.

With the proposal continued to an indefinite date, Blough said he will spend more time on the development plan and focus on getting approval for the division of land parcels in the area.  

Despite the apparent victory for project opponents, tensions were still high when several residents who came prepared to give comments were instructed to limit commentary to delaying the item rather than the merits of the project.

According to Whitham, the direction was given because the removal of the item from the agenda meant that any public comments pertaining to the project would not be maintained in the public record.

In 2016, a 600-person H-2A housing project in Santa Maria that was approved by the Santa Barbara Planning Commission, faced similar opposition. Farmworker advocates raised concerns about worker safety and the rural location far from the rest of the community. That project, proposed by Betteravia Farms, ultimately failed because of construction issues.

Due to the size of the proposed project, CAUSE Policy Advocate Lucas Zucker recommended that it be included in larger discussions about the city's General Plan, which sets development goals for the city.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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