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Several agriculture industry representatives expressed concern about a proposed ordinance that would govern employee housing in low- and medium-density residential dwellings Thursday during the final community meeting to discuss the H-2A farmworker program in Santa Maria.

Held at the Minami Community Center, the meeting — which drew around 50 people — served as an opportunity to gather public input on the proposed ordinance before it goes before the Planning Commission for review Wednesday.

Under the H-2A program — which is relied upon by several large farming operations in the Santa Maria area — employers may apply to bring foreign workers to the United States to work temporary agricultural jobs. Under the program, employers must provide housing at no cost to workers.

Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco said the ordinance — if it is approved by the Planning Commission and City Council — will require a conditional use permit for employee housing of seven or more people in any structure in the R-1 and R-2 residential zoning districts.

Under the ordinance, the conditional use permit will be issued by the city’s zoning administrator — which will be Community Development Director Chuen Ng — and will not require review by the Planning Commission, unless it is appealed or the zoning administrator chooses to refer the permit to the Planning Commission.

A grower or homeowner wishing to use a residential home to house more than seven H-2A workers will have to fill out an application and pay a filing fee, which has yet to be determined, Sinco said. After staff reviews the application, notices of the zoning administrator's meeting must be publicly posted and sent to all homeowners within 300 feet of any property being considered.

“If somebody finds out [about the permit application] and they have a problem with it, they have to do a written request for a public hearing provided to the Community Development Department no later than seven days prior to the meeting,” Sinco said. “If no one requests a hearing, if there’s no objection, it will just be approved as is.”

Labor contractor Carlos Castaneda said he felt the process was being rushed. “We rely heavily on this program and this program is the only lifeblood we have left,” he said. “I apologize if I’m questioning anything up here, Phil [Sinco]. I trust the judgment of our civil servants, but I have to question it when we’re moving at breakneck speed. When we’re trying to propose something that nobody here has seen and we’re supposed to have Planning Commission vote on it next week, and shortly thereafter, City Council is supposed to vote on it.”

Kaylee Ellis, of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, also expressed concern that the city was moving too quickly with its ordinance. “We’re definitely concerned about the accelerated timeline for the ordinance review and proposed adoption goes against this town hall process,” she said. “It also goes against a thoughtful and orderly planning process. Our members need adequate time to review and consider the potential implications and consequences of what is being proposed. We don’t believe a thoughtful review can be confined to a two-week process.”

Ellis and Castaneda both pointed out that many farmers have already signed contracts and made financial commitments for the 2019 season.

Santa Maria resident Cheryl Ausan — who lives near a home used to house H-2A workers — said she felt there was a need for compromises from all stakeholders. “You’re not going to make everyone happy,” she said. “We’re not happy with this, but we understand everyone has to make compromises.”

Councilman Mike Cordero said he didn’t want the city to make a mistake that would harm the agriculture industry and that he was concerned about the pace of the process. “[Castaneda] says he’s concerned about pushing this through so quickly,” he said. “We’re moving at lightning speed in spite of the fact that [Ausan] would have liked us to do this two months ago. It’s concerning to me that we’re doing that.”

Sinco said the ordinance was designed to balance the interests of homeowners with the interests of the growers that rely on the H-2A program

“I personally don’t feel that there’s any reason to slow the train down unless the council feels more study is required,” Sinco said. “I believe that the issue is fairly clear. This is a logical result of what we’ve heard at these meetings. It’s always been at the back of my mind and I’ve shared it with stakeholders all along the way that this is probably staff’s recommendation because it makes the most sense.

“There are some people that don’t want any regulations at all and then there are people that want absolutely no H-2A at all,” Sinco continued. “So staff is trying to strike a balance, but it’s ultimately up to the council to decide if we’ve done that, or if we need to go back to the drawing board.”

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed


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