Santa Maria motel
A motel at 210 Nicholson Ave. in Santa Maria is being used to house H-2A seasonal farmworkers. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Residents of a Santa Maria neighborhood expressed concerns about plans to use an old motel to house temporary farmworkers, but city officials say no special permits were required.

During the public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, three residents told the Santa Maria City Council that they opposed the motel at 210 Nicholson Ave. being used to house H-2A seasonal farmworkers.

“I’m concerned mainly because there is so little known about the situation,” said Inge Stolch, who lives in a nearby neighborhood. “Great care was taken to maintain the appearance of keeping the name as motel instead of converting it a H-2A housing project in order to avoid having to send out notices to nearby residents. The location is just wrong.”

Resident Jackie Brunello also spoke out against the use.

“Having not heard about this until a few days ago, one would wonder why information had not been disseminated,” Brunello said.

H-2A is a federal program to bring temporary farmworkers for seasonal work. Growers and farm labor contractors have said the program is vital for helping them ensure crops get harvested amid a shortage of workers. 

Ag industry representatives have said that those using the H-2A program must provide housing that meets certain standards and follow other strict guidelines.

But city officials say no special permits were required since the motel’s use remains unchanged — housing temporary field workers instead of itinerant travelers.

“We treat it essentially like a motel at the present time,” interim City Attorney Philip Sinco told Noozhawk.

The city still will collect transient occupancy tax, or bed tax, of 12 percent on each room charge like those paid by other motel and hotel operators, he added.

City Manager Jason Stilwell said he intended to meet with neighbors to hear their concerns and present information about the motel’s use. 

The motel, which has been a Comfort Inn and EconoLodge Inn & Suites at times since it was built in the 1970s, sits near Highway 101 and the Marian Regional Medical Center campus and medical office complexes. 

During meetings last year, ag industry representatives said H-2A workers must follow strict rules or face being sent home early — and losing out on the income.

Before arriving for seasonal work, the H-2A workers are vetted by the Department of Homeland Security.

This isn’t the first motel in Santa Maria used for H-2A workers. Several years ago, a hotel at the intersection of North Broadway and East Bunny Avenue received a major makeover to become a home to the seasonal workers. That motel’s operator pays bed tax as if those staying there were itinerant travelers and not farmworkers.

Another residential complex on North Broadway that housed low-income residents also has housed H-2A workers.

Before the renovation and new clientele, both the motel and residential complex had a number incidents involving police, but calls for service at both locations since have dropped, according to city leaders.

With 1,700 H-2A workers in Santa Maria, housing has been a hot topic after some neighbors expressed concerns about large numbers of workers placed in single-family residences, leading to talks about restrictions.

In response, the city held a series of meetings on the topic to craft proposed rules, which the City Council is expected to consider approving next month.

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