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Ventura County

Board Backs Plan to Build Homes for Field Workers

Supervisors say some zoning laws would have to be changed and construction funds obtained to put housing next to cropland.

November 30, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County officials this week backed a plan to build more barracks, apartments and low-cost homes for farm workers and their families, a move intended to help keep the region's vibrant agricultural economy thriving for decades.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed a wide-ranging plan that would allow ranchers and farmers to build housing adjacent to cropland. Zoning laws restricting such housing would have to be changed to accomplish the goal.

County officials, working with city leaders, would also have to find federal, state and private dollars to finance construction, officials said. Supervisors acknowledged that the county general fund could not be tapped for much money because of chronic budget troubles.

But in the long run, providing homes for laborers would help Ventura County maintain its semi-rural lifestyle, something voters have made clear they want, said Supervisor John Flynn of Oxnard.

"We can't have [growth control] in Ventura County unless we all commit ourselves to providing the housing for the people who do the work," Flynn said.

Several farmers have already expressed interest in designating some of their property for housing, officials said. The location, size and type of housing will be decided through a process set up by county officials.

In January, County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston is expected to provide estimates on how much the county would have to spend to coordinate the program. Supervisors said they intend to get the program off the ground and then hand off its administration to a private nonprofit group.

The action comes after an August survey conducted by the county showed that 41% of farm workers lived in crowded dwellings. More than 20% lacked adequate heating, according to the survey, and 7% had no bathroom facilities.

With a median annual income of $12,000, field workers have little opportunity to improve their conditions, the study concluded. A committee studying the problem recommended that the county take a lead role in addressing it.

Several speakers applauded the board for pressing the issue.

"When you get leadership from the Board of Supervisors, that is what makes it happen," said attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz, an Oxnard labor advocate. "This will really be a shot in the arm to making agriculture sustainable in the county."

Flynn and Supervisor Judy Mikels headed the committee that looked into the issue. Mikels said she wants to see zoning changes addressed right away. She cited one rancher who wanted to build a foreman's house on his property but was unable to do so because of current restrictions.

Supervisor Kathy Long urged county officials to include city planners in the process and to educate the public on the need for the housing. Supervisor Steve Bennett said he approves of the program in concept, but cautioned officials to carefully draft new regulations.

Policymakers should make sure that the new housing is genuinely for farm workers, he said. And most of the units should be built within city limits rather than on unincorporated land, Bennett said.

"We don't want to start urbanizing the very agricultural lands we are claiming to try to preserve," he said.

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