Farmworkers pick crops in a field in Santa Maria.
Farmworkers pick crops in a field in Santa Maria. The City Council on Tuesday tackled rules for seasonal farmworker housing in residential neighborhoods, ending up with a compromise proposal. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)
Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino and Councilman Michael Moats.

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino and Councilman Michael Moats during Tuesday night’s discussion of farmworker housing in the city. A compromise plan by Moats was approved by the council on a 4-1 vote. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

After more than a year of debate, the Santa Maria City Council on Tuesday night tackled rules for seasonal farmworker housing in residential neighborhoods, ending up with a compromise proposal.

The debate centered on the federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker program that brings employees to the United State for the seasonal jobs. Growers say they need the program due to a labor shortage.

A year ago, residents showed up at a council meeting to complain about reports of up to two dozen H-2A workers being housed in single-family homes in the city.

“There is an agricultural labor demand that is exceeding affordable housing supply,” Community Development Director Chuen Ng said at the start Tuesday night’s discussion. “Similarly, there’s a need to maintain a labor force, and there’s tension with preserving neighborhood character.”

Over the past year, the city held workshops about the H-2A program, including spelling out the strict rules labor contractors face to host such workers.

State law limits city restrictions, requiring that employee housing of six or fewer people be treated as an allowed use in residential zones, Interim City Attorney Philip Sinco said.  

The council voted 4-1 to support an option requiring conditional-use permits for H-2A housing situations involving seven or more people in a single-family home. The new zoning administrator process would consider the request, with the procedure including notifying some neighbors about the application.

However, council members agreed that H-2A for higher density residential zones of R-2 and R-3 would not need permits.

And the council directed staff to develop a tenant-displacement program so any current residents bumped from their housing due to H-2A would receive compensation to help with relocation costs.

Councilman Michael Moats offered up the “reasonable compromise” plan that mixed features from two options presented by staff. Each alternative had support from both sides of the debate.

“That way everyone walks out of here angry at something,” Moats said.

Moats argued that H-2A housing for R-1 neighborhoods should be required to get a conditional-use permit so other residents are notified about the employee housing proposed nearby.

“When you buy a single-family home, you’re entering into an agreement with the zoning that your city’s made that you’re going to be living in a low-density environment,” Moats said. “You made that decision. That’s your lifestyle choice.”

Councilwoman Etta Waterfield and Mayor Alice Patino favored the more restrictive option, but only Waterfield voted against the final motion.

Earlier this year, the Planning Commission recommended the council approve restrictive rules, and included a stipulation that employee housing in the R-1 district expire in 18 months from the ordinance adoption.

However, the City Council vote Tuesday did not include the sunset clause.

Discussions became emotional at times, with Councilwoman Gloria Soto choking up at one point after some H-2A workers spoke out to say they did not pose a danger to the community.

“How is that OK? It’s not,” Soto said.

Councilman Mike Cordero also noted those who participate in the H-2A program undergo background checks and said the opposition reminded him of segregation.

“I stress again that these individuals that come here to do this work are not illegal aliens,” Cordero said. “They are here on a visa. They have every single right that you or I or anyone else has.”

The topic of H-2A housing has drawn standing-room-only crowds to the meetings, with multiple ag industry representatives and residents alike.

“We came here to work, not to cause problems,” one worker told the council Tuesday night.

But Santa Maria resident Cheryl Ausun renewed her opposition to H-2A workers in single-family neighborhoods, saying a house near her residence appeared neglected during the off-season.

“It’s not fair to the people who put roots in Santa Maria,” she said. 

Tuesday’s talks primarily focused on H-2A housing in single-family neighborhoods, and the item will return for approval at a future meeting. 

At some point, the city also expects to tackle concerns about motels being converted to house seasonal workers after complaints from Hancock Park residents.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.