A farm-labor housing camp proposed for the western edge of the Santa Maria Valley is needed due to a worker shortage, agricultural industry officials said.
But the project that was to go before the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission on Wednesday has raised objections from local residents and public safety officials.
The Curletti Guest Worker Housing Project, proposed for land owned by Betteravia Properties, calls for 30 bunkhouses, each 1,443 square feet, and three common buildings, each 2,052 square feet, for cooking, dining and laundry.
The farm labor camp housing up to 600 workers at 3650 Highway 1 would sit on nearly 8 acres of a 398-acre parcel on the southwest side of Highway 1, approximately 1 mile northwest of the intersection with Black Road.
Workers housed at the site would be part of the federal H2-A visa program designed to meet the need for seasonal and temporary labor. The H-2A program includes agricultural worker protections and employer requirements with respect to wages and working conditions. Family members do not accompany workers.
Joe Leonard, chief executive officer of Betteravia Farms, said the ag labor shortage led to the project.
“The need for field workers in the agricultural lands in the Santa Maria Valley has been a prominent issue along with the shortage of housing when bringing in additional labor to meet demand,” Leonard wrote in a letter to county officials.
“Currently there is not enough available labor to meet demand and some farmers are not being able to harvest crops leading to fields not being planted,” he said.
Betteravia Farms grows assorted crops including lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower celery, artichokes and strawberries. The firm has 450 permanent workers plus another 400 employees provided by a contractor.
However, during the busy season, an additional 1,000 employees are needed for harvesting and production support.
Claire Wineman from the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties also cited the labor shortage in supporting the project.
“Our members have reported 20-to-25-percent labor shortages resulting in losses of $11.2 million; The true losses to both agribusinesses and related economic contributions are likely much higher,” Wineman said.
Wineman also objected to calling the project a farm labor camp.
“The phrase carries outdated connotations and doesn’t reflect the current standards and oversight of H-2A housing,” she said.
Santa Maria City Manager Rick Haydon sent a letter of conceptual support, noting converted motels and apartment buildings change neighborhoods, and said farm worker housing should be located close to the fields and other work sites.
However, Jerry Copeland of Santa Maria opposed the housing proposal.
“Just the sound of it is not good and not emotionally stabilizing condition,” Copeland said in comments emailed to the county. “This is not right. It sounds like a concentration camp. We are not Nazis, they are not Jews.”
Cmdr. Craig Bonner of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department expressed concerns about having 600 workers with just one on-site manager.
“Specifically, we are concerned that without adequate internal safety/security staffing and controls, the ongoing operation of this project will disproportionately utilize public safety resources, thus detracting from existing public safety service levels within the unincorporated areas of the Santa Maria Valley,” Bonner wrote.
Bonner asked commissioners to require the applicant to submit a safety and security plan addressing on-site staffing requirements for the provision of adequate safety and security for the tenants, minimizing the use of public safety resources and coordinating with law enforcement when needed.
A mitigated negative declaration prepared on the project “concludes that all potential impacts can be mitigated to less than significant levels with implementation of identified mitigation measures,” county staff said.
In response to concerns about the lack of recreational opportunities for those living at the remote location, the applicant proposed removing existing greenhouses and making room to install three soccer fields in addition to adding basketball courts and lounging areas. Televisions with cable and Internet access also are planned.
While county rules required 155 parking spaces, the applicant is proposing to have 50, noting that buses and vans will transport workers in shifts for both work and personal trips. During peak occupancy, the applicant expects to use five 40-passenger buses transporting workers and three vans for personal needs trips.