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Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco explains a proposed employee housing ordinance during the H-2A community meeting at the Minami Center on Nov. 15. On Wednesday, the ordinance will be considered for approval by the Planning Commission.  

A proposed employee housing ordinance that would govern the housing of more than six H-2A farmworkers in low- and medium-density residential dwellings is slated to be considered by the Planning Commission on Wednesday.

The ordinance — which was developed by city staff in response to feedback during five community forums about the H-2A program — will require a conditional use permit to house more than six employees in R-1 or R-2 residential zones. Rather than going through the Planning Commission, the conditional use permits would be granted through a new zoning administrator process.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Planning Commission will consider approving the ordinance during its meeting at City Hall.

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.

In February, city staff received several complaints about homes used to house H-2A workers and heard reports of large sums of money offered to landlords to house farmworkers. In response, city staff drafted an emergency ordinance banning the housing of more than six workers in an R-1 or R-2 zone that was passed by the City Council during its March 20 meeting.

After the emergency ordinance — which the City Council declined to extend during its April 7 meeting — expired in May, city staff arranged five community forums to gather input about the H-2A program in Santa Maria. The first meeting was in June and the final meeting was held last week.

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.

Planning division manager Ryan Hostetter said that 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 planning department. After the application is reviewed, it would be heard during a zoning administrator meeting and, in accordance with state law, all neighbors within 300 feet of the property would be notified. No permit is needed to house six or fewer employees in a residential property.

Community Development Director Chuen Ng, or someone Ng designates, will serve as the zoning administrator. 

“If we receive a letter from someone that has concerns, then we would put it on a formal hearing agenda,” Hostetter said. “The whole point of this is to show that the neighbors are a part of this process.”

During the public hearing, both the applicant and concerned community members would be able to speak, Hostetter said. The zoning administrator would consider the information and make a decision, which could include imposing special conditions with the permit.

After the zoning administrator makes a decision, it would go into effect in 15 days. The decision also could be appealed during the two weeks following the decision, Hostetter said. If appealed, the decision would then go before the Planning Commission for review.

Under the proposed ordinance, it would take around two to three months to obtain the conditional use permit if there are no objections and the permit is approved as a consent item, Hostetter said. “If it’s a controversial project, then it will take longer than that and it will be case-dependent.”

During the final community forum, several agriculture industry representatives expressed concern about the pace the city was moving at in reviewing the ordinance.

Kaylee Ellis, of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, noted that many farmers have already signed contracts and made financial commitments for the 2019 season.

During the meeting, Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco said he believed it was likely the City Council would accommodate growers that already have signed contracts by delaying the implementation of the ordinance or including a grace period.

If the ordinance is approved by the Planning Commission during its Wednesday meeting, it will go before the City Council for final approval.

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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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