Despite public pleas to keep a proposed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility outside city limits, the Santa Maria City Council has decided to move the project forward.

The council voted 3-2 Tuesday night to approve general plan and zoning changes that could make way for a proposed development near the intersection of Depot Street and McCoy Lane that includes two single-story medical buildings and an ICE facility — relocated from its current site within the Lompoc Federal Penitentiary.

Council members Terri Zuniga and Willie Green cast the dissenting votes following a heated public hearing, with more than 40 speakers worried about what the immigration facility’s presence would do to the community.

The council approved a negative declaration of environmental impact and a general plan amendment changing the space use from light industrial to commercial professional office, according to Larry Appel, Santa Maria’s director of development.

The item will come back before the City Council for second reading at its Feb. 4 meeting, and the City Planning Commission will consider approving the project permit the following evening, Appel said.

A crowd of more than 400 concerned residents spilled out into the City Hall courtyard when council chambers and hallways hit capacity. 

Residents raised concerns that the federal agency, which handles deportation cases, would sweep the town for those living illegally in the country.

ICE representative Steven Finn, a supervisory detention and deportation officer, tried to reassure the crowd that the facility’s real purpose was working with local prisons and jails to pick up undocumented inmates set for release and then determining their deportation status.

Finn said the Lompoc facility is in old office trailers that don’t even have running water.

The proposed Santa Maria facility would include a 12,700-square-foot, one-story ICE building at 740 W. Century St., and accompanying fencing, landscaping and a 50-stall parking lot.

The site would be used for administrative purposes, with the ability to hold a maximum of 12 to 15 people in two to three specially built rooms, Appel said.

Developer Daniel Blough of Santa Maria-based C-Four LCC first submitted proposed plans for the project in 2007, which at the time included two light-industrial buildings and four recreational vehicle storage buildings that would include 61 storage units.

Since then, Blough resubmitted plans to include the ICE facility.

“It’s just interesting that several years ago, the same Dan Blough changed the zoning from (commercial professional office) to industrial and now he’s putting it back to what it was before,” Appel said. “It kind of shows how you have to be flexible and make your property available for whatever seems to be needed at the time.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.