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In response to requests from growers and representatives from the agricultural industry, the Santa Maria Planning Commission tabled its review of a proposed employee housing ordinance until mid-January.

The ordinance, which was developed by city staff after months of community meetings on the H-2A farmworker program, would require a conditional use permit for the housing of seven or more workers in a low- or medium-density residential dwelling. The permits would be granted through a new zoning administrator hearing process. No permit is needed to house six or fewer employees in a residential property.

During the fifth and final H-2A community meeting, Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco said the proposed ordinance aims to balance the interests of growers and farmers that depend on H-2A workers as well as community members who are concerned about the effect such properties can have on their neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, after four people spoke and requested more time to work with city staff, the Planning Commission voted 4-0 to postpone the consideration of the ordinance until Jan. 16. Commissioner Kelly White O’Neill was absent.

Under the ordinance’s zoning administrator process, a grower or homeowner looking to use a property for housing more than six H-2A workers would fill out an application and submit it to the city’s planning department. After the application was reviewed, it would be heard during a zoning administrator meeting and all neighbors within 300 feet of the property would be notified.

If there was no objection from a city resident, the conditional use permit would be granted as a consent item. The new process is meant to help streamline the application process, said Ryan Hostetter, planning manager.

If any member of the public expresses concerns in writing to the planning department, a public hearing would be held before the zoning administrator, which would be Community Development Director Chuen Ng or someone he designates.

During the public hearing, both the applicant and concerned community members would be able to speak, and the zoning administrator would make a decision, which could include imposing special conditions with the permit. The administrator’s decision could then be appealed to the Planning Commission

Mark Martinez, vice president of public policy at the California Strawberry Commission, told the commissioners that he hoped the review of the ordinance would be postponed to allow those from the agriculture industry to speak with city staff about their concerns.

“At this time, we haven’t had a lengthy discussion with the city,” he said. “We feel that his process is rushed. There’s much planning and forecasting involved in agriculture and strawberry growers are well into their 2019 season.”

Martinez said his organization was concerned about the time needed to process applications — which is expected to be two to three months, if no one objects — and the delays associated with any appeals if someone chooses to request a public hearing on an application.

“Our stakeholders feel that this issue is being rushed,” Martinez said. “It deserves more open dialogue in hope that we can come to a decision that is equitable for all parties involved.”

Labor contractor Carlos Castaneda also expressed concern about the pace of the ordinance review.

“Seeing this set up the day before Thanksgiving and then going to the City Council a couple weeks after — it just smells extremely fishy to us in the industry,” he said. “Agriculture is the biggest economic engine of this community, and although we’ve had a very diplomatic approach to conversations with our city servants, we’ve been left on the sidelines on this topic.”

Castaneda said the ordinance would be detrimental to the local agricultural industry. “I feel the way this is written would lead to the eventual demise of agriculture,” he said. “I’m not trying to be a conspiracy theorist, but if you look at what this does and the reliance of agriculture on H-2A, you’ll see what I say is true. The growth of [the H-2A program] is essential for agriculture to survive.”

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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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