Assistant City Attorney Phil Sinco talks during a town hall meeting.
Assistant City Attorney Phil Sinco talks about Santa Maria’s proposed housing regulations for the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program during a town hall meeting last week. A proposal to require a conditional-use permit for single-family homes with more than seven workers heads to the Santa Maria Planning Commission on Wednesday night. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The city of Santa Maria is poised to adopt rules for employee housing but some agriculture industry members have questioned the fast pace that means the first step could occur on Thanksgiving eve, days after the proposal’s unveiling.

In anticipation of the Santa Maria Planning Commission meeting Wednesday night to consider new rules, the city held its fifth and final town hall meeting about the H-2A temporary ag worker program last week, when the proposed rules were revealed.

Talks began 10 months ago when residents contended homes in single-family neighborhoods were being used to house dozens of workers in the country under the federal H-2A program.

“We are trying to balance the interests,” Assistant City Attorney Phil Sinco said of the proposed regulations outlined at the town hall meeting Thursday. “There’s many people in the city that don’t believe this is an appropriate place to house the workers in these neighborhood. And then there’s an obvious need for the workers.

“Our ordinance is an attempt to balance the interests of the two sides, and make it possible to give the people in the neighborhood some comfort, some assurance that if something goes wrong, the city can take action to correct it,” Sinco added.

But the rules also will protect the rights of ag companies in finding housing for workers, Sinco said.

Neighbors sought a prohibition of all H-2A housing in single-family residences, while ag industry representatives urged that there be no restrictions, contending the federal program already puts rules on residential requirements. 

State rules restrict Santa Maria and other jurisdictions on regulations for employee housing.

With that in mind, city staff has proposed rules that allow companies to apply for a conditional-use permit for H-2A housing of seven workers or more in R-1 (low density) and R-2 (medium density) zones.

An application submitted to the city would go to the zoning administrator for a ruling on whether to issue the permit. 

The proposed rules would expand the power of the zoning administrator — Community Development Director Chuen Ng — to issue some conditional-use permits, Sinco said. The zoning administrator meetings would be open to the public.

With a shortage of field workers, the ag industry has turned to H2-A to import seasonal employees, farm labor contractor Carlos Castaneda said, calling it the artery keeping the local agriculture alive.

“This program is the only lifeblood we have left,” he said, questioning why the city was moving “at breakneck speed.”

He was critical of the proposal going to the Planning Commission days after being unveiled, adding that the specific details in the suggested rules had not be discussed at previous town hall meetings. 

Others said ag firms had already made commitments for the 2019 growing season and called for not adopting new rules too quickly. 

“You’re not going to make everybody happy. We’re not happy with this, but we understand. Everybody has to make compromises,” one homeowner said. “At least we’re here talking about it.”

Whatever recommendation the Planning Commission makes, the H-2A housing discussion will continue, Sinco told the crowd of approximately 50 people at the town hall meeting.

One suggestion raised during the town hall forums called for using commercial or industrial property for employee housing, but staff tabled the idea due to complex issues that would require further study, Sinco said. 

“But we do intend to pursue this in the coming months,” Sinco said, adding that staff has long-, short- and medium-term goals related to housing matters.

The Planning Commission meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Santa Maria City Hall, 110 E. Cook St.

The commission’s recommendation will be forwarded to the City Council for final approval of the revised ordinance.

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