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Farmworkers harvest lettuce in a field off West Main Street, west of Santa Maria, on Tuesday afternoon. 

A moratorium on housing for more than six H-2A workers in a single-family home or medium-density residential building will expire next month after the Santa Maria City Council voted Tuesday night to oppose an ordinance extending the measure.

Under the H-2A program, employers must provide housing at no cost to workers, provide daily transportation to and from the work site and provide each worker with daily meals or furnish facilities allowing workers to cook for themselves.

Eleven people commented on the ordinance, with the majority urging the council to oppose it. Farmer after farmer stepped up to the podium saying they rely on H-2A workers due to the unreliability of local labor.

Farmer Noe Contreras said without H-2A workers, his family’s companies – Savino Farms and Big F Company – would be unable to harvest their roughly 600 acres of strawberries.

‘Last year we brought 350 people,” Contreras said. “Our companies have chosen to participate in H-2A for stability, that’s a big point – local labor has not been able to provide that."

Carlos Castaneda, who operates Castaneda and Sons, Inc., urged the council to oppose the ordinance. “This process is going to hurt agriculture,” Castaneda said.

Castaneda said the vetting process for farmworkers was intensive – involving interviews and biometrics – and that in the five years he had used H-2A workers, he has had zero issues.

In March the council passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting the housing of more than six H-2A workers in either a single-family home or medium-density residential dwelling after city staff received a report about a landowner evicting tenants of a single-family home as part of a plan to use the home to house 16 H-2A workers.

Out of concern about the economic incentive to house large numbers of H-2A workers in single-family residences, city staff recommended the council pass the emergency ordinance to mitigate potentially negative impacts of H-2A housing and give the city more time to study the issue.

Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco said the city was concerned about the economic incentive being created for landlords to house H-2A workers over permanent city residents.

California Strawberry Commission Vice President of Public Policy Mark Martinez noted that there is no data that shows H-2A is correlated with a decrease in housing values, or increased calls for police or other city services. He asked the council not to rush ahead with the extension of the temporary ban.

“An issue as important as this deserves more time and consideration,” Martinez said.

In response to a question from Council Member Etta Waterfield about the decreasing availability of local labor, Martinez said the domestic workforce is aging and many former farmworkers have transitioned into different industries.

Council Member Michael Moats asked Castaneda if he would mind a home on his street turned into a facility for housing temporary workers. Castaneda responded that he wouldn’t.

“I think the solution is to have more apartment buildings, build barracks or find a way to house workers on farms,” Moats said. “I think single-family homes are for single families.”

Waterfield and Mayor Alice Patino said the council needed to make sure growers are informed in a timely matter so they can restructure their businesses in time.

Council Member Mike Cordero said he was misinformed when he voted for the emergency ordinance last month.

“We jumped the gun the last time by not involving these people,” Cordero said, motioning to the farmers in the crowd.

The council directed Sinco and other city staff to start developing a more permanent ordinance which would accommodate concerned city residents as well as farmers that the council could revisit at a later date.

“I think this is just a big mess,” Patino said.

In other business, the Council discussed the preliminary outreach schedule for the Comprehensive General Plan Update.

“We want to take this year to go out into the community and visit all the stakeholders, get broad feedback about what they see for the future of Santa Maria and hear about what’s important to them,” said Santa Maria Community Development Director Chuen Ng. “It’s open-ended.”

The update will guide the city’s plan for growth and development for the next 20 to 25 years, Ng said.

“We might bring a projector and some slides, maybe some surveys,” Ng said. “We want to get input from a broad spectrum of the community. That requires a lot of legwork but we’re willing to do it. Whether it’s the Kiwanis or the Elks, we’ll go to them to get their input.”

The general plan update process is slated to take three to five years and will touch on all issues of city governance including public safety, fiscal issues, parks and infrastructure.

While the environmental impact report and other technical analysis would be contracted out, much of the work will be done by city staff, Ng said.

“It’s common for a consultant to do this work,” Ng said. “Right now, we’re being fiscally prudent. We’ll contract out what we can’t do. But whatever we can do in-house, we’ll do in-house.”

The outreach process will be conducted over the next four to six months, Ng said. “We anticipate this to be very intensive.”

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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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