One might think figuring out a strategy for house guest workers in a city known for its abundant growing fields would be a simple matter. It is not.

For thing thing, there are divergent, moving parts in this situation.

First, there is the very real need for foreign workers to tend to and harvest crops that are the backbone of this region’s economy. The immigration crackdown emanating from the federal level has reduced the pool of such workers, which in the long run will cost growers money, and in the even longer run will pose a significant risk to the local economy.

Second, there is the ongoing conflict between those seeking to provide housing for temporary workers vs. local residents who object to having such workers living in their neighborhoods.

Those factors will certainly play into any decisions made at this evening’s Santa Maria City Council meeting, at which elected leaders will discuss two options, either of which could lead to a permanent city ordinance to govern H-2A farm workers. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 110 E. Cook St.

The H-2A program originates at the federal level, and allows employers to bring temporary workers into the United States to work mostly seasonal agricultural jobs. Employers are required to provide housing, at no cost to workers.

The question for local policy makers is how best to do that. Here is a snapshot of the two options being considered at tonight’s meeting:

Option No. 1 was endorsed by the city’s Planning Commission in a split vote earlier this year. It would require a conditional-use permit when seven or more workers are placed in low or medium-density residential buildings. The permits would be granted through a zoning administrator hearing process.

Option No. 2 would allow seven to 10 workers in a low or medium-density home under a simplified permitting process. A conditional-use permit using the secondary option would still be required to house 11 or more workers in R-1 or R-2 properties.

Option No. 1 would appear to be the better choice, in part because when applications for a conditional-use permit are made, a letter would be sent to neighbors within 300 feet of the subject property. If there are no objections, the permit could be approved as a consent item. On the other hand, if even one neighbor has a beef, a public hearing before the zoning administrator makes a decision on granting the permit, considering possible negative impacts.

This all may seem straight-forward from a policy standpoint, but it has been anything but. Tonight’s meeting comes just more than a year after the City Council approved an urgency ordinance, which temporarily banned the housing of more than six H-2A workers in low and medium-density dwellings.

Then members from the agricultural community that relies on the program came forward, explaining to the council that the quickie ordinance could be harmful to the industry, which compelled council members to send the whole question of guest-working housing back to planners, and allowed the temporary ban to expire.

Santa Maria has many levels of housing problems, some of which are being dealt with, and some that apparently can’t be resolved because of market forces. For example, when it comes to affordable housing for a large segment of the local population, especially seniors, there has not been a workable solution.

In a way, the guest-worker housing dilemma is an example of the larger housing issue. And if you have answers, please write to us.

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