Watching government agencies conduct business is sometimes like watching grass that refuses to grow. Time-consuming and tedious.
It’s really frustrating for those who need a government policy decision for guidance. In this case, we’re talking about the H-2A guest-worker housing issue, specifically in North County.
The Santa Maria Planning Commission was poised to make a decision to move forward with a new ordinance for housing guest workers, but a last-minute challenge from agriculture industry officials brought the process to a screeching halt.
Instead of a policy being in place for the arrival of a new year, the commission decided to punt, pushing the decision-making part of the process to mid-January.
Frankly, this is not unlike almost all discussions about affordable housing in Santa Barbara County. Everyone knows there isn’t enough such housing available, and when a developer comes up with a proposal, the protesters bring out their heavy artillery.
That is especially true with regard to guest-worker accommodations, a transient population that worries many home owners in residential neighborhoods.
Finding a better way to make worker housing available has been in the works for months, and included a series of community meetings at which planning officials listened to and took note of citizens’ thinking on the issue.
But months of work hit a snag when the ag community expressed the belief that the process was moving too quickly, and because they are primary stakeholders, their input is valued.
We agree, but wonder where those growers were when the community meetings were being held. There was plenty of opportunity to speak up throughout the year.
The plan city staff came up with seems reasonable enough, requiring a conditional-use permit for the housing of seven or more workers in a low or medium-density residential dwelling. Permits would be granted through a new hearing process. No permit is needed to house six or fewer employees in a residential property.
A total of five community meetings were held, but the final one was when ag officials expressed the notion of the city moving too fast on an important policy decision.
Even arriving late to the game, growers have a valid point — agriculture is the region’s No. 1 industry, and is the big engine that drives the local economy. That fact alone is probably reason enough to strive to get the guest-worker housing ordinance right this time around.
One big problem for growers is the timeline written into the proposed ordinance, which is that the seven-worker permit application could take several months to process, in large part because of the need to get neighbors involved in the discussion.
Growers often can’t afford to wait that long to get their work force organized. Growing vegetables can be a little like rolling the dice in Las Vegas, because you can never really be sure what the weather and market conditions are going to do with your planting, nurturing and harvesting schedule.
While all this could have been part of the discussions in those earlier community meetings, it wasn’t. But now that a plan has been put on the table, it is important that growers’ concerns are weighed alongside those of people living in neighborhoods that will be affected by guest-worker housing.
And perhaps the issue of accommodating H-2A workers might further encourage a regional discussion about affordable housing in general. Leaders in both the public and private sector have been struggling with this issue for decades, and maybe if we widen the affordable-housing conversation, there will be a breakthrough.