Farm-labor camp in Santa Maria Valley could be home to 600 workers

A map shows location of a proposed farmworker housing camp with bunkhouses and more planned for the site on Highway 1 near Black Road in the Santa Maria Valley.
A map shows location of a proposed farmworker housing camp with bunkhouses and more planned for the site on Highway 1 near Black Road in the Santa Maria Valley.

A massive farm-labor housing camp planned for just west of Orcutt in northern Santa Barbara County got the go-ahead from the county Planning Commission on Wednesday.

Despite reservations from the commissioners, the unanimous approval included each of the five expressing their support for the overall goals of the project and the expected effects it will have on agriculture labor.

The Curletti Farm Employee Housing Project was proposed under the federal H2-A program, which allows U.S. employers who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring in foreign workers for temporary agricultural jobs.

The commission examined the project, in part, for its expected “significant but mitigable” effects on the environment, including on air quality, water resources, fire hazards, and public services.

Betteravia Farms, the organization behind the project, sought a major conditional-use permit allowing for the camp, and a minor conditional-use permit for the development’s water system.

The project consists of 30 bunkhouses for 20 laborers each, with sleeping, lavatory and bathing facilities. There will be three additional common buildings with cooking, dining, and laundry facilities.

The project will be built in three phases.

Betteravia Farms grows broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, strawberries, celery and lettuce on about 9,000 acres in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

In response to concerns about workers lacking adequate recreation facilities while at the camp, Betteravia revised its proposal to include amenities such as soccer fields and basketball hoops.

One of the H2-A program’s requirements for employers is that they provide workers with transportation to their work site, and Betteravia plans to do this with buses and vans.

The project is necessary, say agriculture industry officials, because of a shortage of workers.

Betteravia Farms is “about 20 to 25 percent short on labor this year,” said Joe Leonard, CEO of Betteravia.

His farm’s H2-A labor, he told the commissioners, is supplementary labor, and currently makes up about 20 percent of Betteravia’s workforce.

Betteravia will be providing frequent transportation in and out of town for services the workers might need or want, he said.

The workers are typically recruited from within 30 miles of the Mexican border, Betteravia representatives said, and are vetted by agents at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana.

“We feel that this project benefits everybody,” Leonard said. “It’ll take some pressure off the housing, most specifically in Santa Maria, and I think in Lompoc.”

“The workforce,” he added, will “get quality housing — they feel more at home, they get a comfortable place, a safe place, and, again, the environment works for them.”

The H2-A program, agricultural industry representatives said during public comment, is a lifeline as the number of farmworkers hasn’t kept up with demands, and many migrants who used to perform this kind of work have been taking up other opportunities like higher education.

Per the H2-A program, the Curletti workers will earn $11.89 per hour.

However, the prospect of housing up to 600 farmworkers in a series of bunkhouses left some feeling uncomfortable or outright concerned.

“Each 1,443-square-foot bunkhouse will have 20 workers,” said Hazel Davalos, the organizing director of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, known as CAUSE.

“That’s about 70 square feet per person — just barely larger than a typical prison cell. This is not housing, it’s a labor camp.”

Davalos and other public commenters argued that the workers would be unfairly isolated, and expressed concern over whether they would receive transportation to places where they could file complaints in the event of unfair treatment or rights violations.

The county Sheriff’s Department raised its own concerns over safety.

“Our concern is that if we don’t have some safeguards in place, that the project could have the potential for negative impacts to the remainder of the unincorporated Santa Maria area in terms of public safety services,” Cmdr. Craig Bonner told the commissioners from Santa Maria.

One of the conditions tacked onto the project was the development by the applicant of a safety and security plan in case an incident that requires law enforcement arises. It would have to be submitted to and approved by the Sheriff’s Department.

The reason for the plan, Bonner said, was the camp’s relative remoteness; sending over law enforcement would take considerable personnel away from other Santa Maria Valley areas.

Bonner and Leonard said they had already started working on how to approach the issue in a way that would satisfy both their sides.

Commissioners Cecilia Brown, Daniel Blough and Larry Ferini posited that the provision was potentially discriminatory given other projects they had approved that did not require such a plan.

The condition, Blough said, sounded “racist” and “smacked of discrimination.”

Ferini, the commission chairman, said that he wasn’t comfortable giving the Sheriff’s Department “a blank check” on this issue.

The chairman, whose uncle is Robert Patrick Ferini, the applicant and owner of Betteravia, said that he used to, but no longer, work for his uncle in the agricultural business and no longer receives financial compensation.

The commission changed the safety/security condition to have the applicant and Sheriff’s Department collaborate to develop a safety plan that still needs department approval. If a plan that satisfies both parties cannot be reached, the two parties can return to the Planning Commission to have the condition modified.

Commissioner Marell Brooks, in whose district the development is proposed, expressed worry over the number of lavatories in the camp, which does not plan to have any in the common buildings.

David Swenk, the project’s agent, said that 10 people per toilet amount meets state and federal standards and is the same proportion used in college dormitories.

In the end, the commissioners expressed optimism about the project’s effects on agriculture labor needs.

“This project is precedent-setting,” Brooks cautioned.