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Board Allows More Farm-Worker Housing

Ventura County supervisors approve a zoning change that could add 113 homes in unincorporated areas for the laborers.

May 08, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

For one long, cold winter, the family of six lived in a tool shed made of corrugated steel.

Cramped and lacking plumbing, the immigrant family members still fought hard to stay when their Camarillo landlord insisted they move out, farm worker Fidel Andrade recalled. "They simply did not have the means to rent something else," Andrade, 46, said in Spanish, a translator at his side.

His audience, members of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, listened attentively this week as Andrade related the plight of a fellow field laborer. And then they did something about it.

Voting unanimously, the board agreed to permit more farm-worker housing by loosening zoning codes. The change will allow farmers and ranchers to build up to four dwellings, depending on the size of the farming operation. The previous standard was two homes.

Larger dormitory-type complexes will also be allowed. Although a permit will be easier to obtain, large projects will still be subject to regulatory review and public hearings.

Planning staff members project the change will increase the potential number of farm-worker homes in unincorporated areas by 113. The number and location of larger dormitory projects are not clear, staff members said.

Supervisors turned down an amendment that would have restricted the homes to areas immediately adjacent to cities.

Supervisors Steve Bennett and Linda Parks said they offered the amendment to prevent growth-inducing sewer and water lines from extending deep into agricultural greenbelts.

Bennett also argued that loosening zoning for county land lets cities off the hook for failing to build enough affordable housing. "Cities have voted to protect agricultural fields but this policy does not create any incentive for cities to create farm-worker housing," Bennett said.

But farm-worker advocates said putting in that restriction would force builders to abide by much tougher city guidelines.

"We're in a crisis and we don't have much choice," said Barbara Macri-Ortiz, an Oxnard poverty lawyer. "If you really truly want agriculture to survive in the long term, we need to have some solutions. It's inhumane what we are doing to these workers and their families."

In the end, Bennett and Parks agreed to vote with the majority in a gesture of unity. But they won the county board's agreement to review the effect of the new ordinance in two years.

Supervisor John Flynn, who shepherded the ordinance over two years, said that farmers, developers, labor advocates and poverty lawyers had come together to support the change.

"It's a miracle," Flynn said. "Go to the Central Valley and try that. They'd think you were crazy."

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