SELAH, Wash. – Ryan Dragoo plans to use H-2A guest workers next year to maintain and harvest the 100 acres of apples and cherries he manages for LFZ Orchards west of Selah.
But his plan to build required temporary housing for the nearly 50 guest workers he seeks has drawn concern from a few neighbors in the rural unincorporated area nearly 3 miles outside of town.
Nearby resident Debi Freudenthal worries that Dickerman Lane – the narrow gravel road into the area – won’t provide enough access for the number of people the housing project would bring, and isn’t satisfied with the way Yakima County’s planning department handles such projects.
“The concept of H-2A housing is appropriate, but they need to be sited appropriately,” she said. “Using a substandard road through a residential area for housing isn’t appropriate.”
But that’s not what’s going to happen, Dragoo said, explaining that he’s already installed an additional access road to the site that connects to nearby Hinton Lane, and plans to pave a stretch of Dickerman Lane in front of the house that’s nearest to the project, which he’s not required to do.
“Being a good neighbor is important,” Dragoo said. “That’s all we’re trying to do. Our No. 1 priority is to do this in a way that doesn’t change anyone’s lifestyle around us.”
Efforts to erect farm worker housing, and concerns about it, are becoming more frequent as growers now rely more than ever on guest worker programs requiring them to provide temporary farm worker housing.
Declining immigration from Mexico – sparked in part by tighter border security and President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiment – paired with aging resident farm workers are drivers of a changing labor force in the fields.
For a long time, growers benefited from an overabundance of field labor produced by illegal immigration, but those days have come to an end, said Dan Fazio, executive director of the statewide labor recruiting firm Wafla.
“The federal government and the state of Washington tacitly encouraged undocumented immigration for many years,” he said. “After 9/11, the feds stopped turning a blind eye. Farmers heard loud and clear that the feds were cracking down on undocumented immigration, and farmers in Washington embraced the administratively cumbersome guest worker program.”
As farmers begin to embrace a legal immigrant labor force, controversy is growing over where immigrant workers should be housed. Historically, temporary farm worker housing has been erected in the fields being farmed. But recently some growers reluctant to give up fertile ground for housing have sought to locate them in more densely populated areas where workers would be closer to grocery stores, banks and other services.
Proposals to locate such housing in Yakima have sparked much discussion among the City Council on whether to allow it.
Efforts to locate one in a building now serving as a day care on West Lincoln Avenue were stalled by the City Council because the city’s ordinance lacks any language governing farm worker housing.
After Valicoff Fruit transformed the Fairbridge Inn and Suites on North First Street into farm worker housing, the council imposed a moratorium on building new extended stay motels and hotels or converting existing ones to extended stay so city staff could draft an ordinance governing lengthy stays at such facilities.
At least two council members – Dulce Gutierrez and Kay Funk – have strongly opposed allowing any farm worker housing into the city. They fear farmers would start buying hotels, apartment buildings and other multifamily dwellings to use for farm worker housing, a move they say would only further stress the shortage of affordable housing.
“Let’s keep H-2A workers out of the city because they already have a housing entitlement and we already have a housing shortage,” Funk said. “H-2A workers already have a housing entitlement and all the people working and struggling to find housing now, they don’t have that entitlement.”
Dragoo plans to build his temporary housing amid the orchards he oversees but not far from a low-density residential area where a handful of homes, including Freudenthal’s, are located.
According to the building permit, the housing project will consist of two 2,500-square-foot buildings to house up to 48 workers from March through November; there will be a recreation area with a basketball court, possibly a short soccer field, a 1,500-square-foot parking lot, sidewalks and landscaping.
“We have 100 acres of farmland in that area and we decided to place the housing project in the most central area,” Dragoo said. “I planned it in a way that would be the farthest away from residents living there.”
The closest resident is 500 feet away, while the others are more than 1,000 feet away, he said.
Bringing in workers through the guest worker program provides him more control over worker conduct and stability in the workforce because of the labor contracts in place, Dragoo said.
There will be no alcohol or drugs on the premises, which will be monitored.
“This is completely out of necessity,” he said of the more than $750,000 housing project. “It’s a huge financial cost. The amount of work that goes into the project is extremely intense.”
Freudenthal, who formerly worked in the county’s planning department but is now a planner with the state Department of Transportation, takes issue with the way the county oversees such projects. Her husband, Joel Freudenthal, is the county’s senior natural resources specialist.
She said neighbors weren’t alerted of the project until late in the permitting process and became concerned when she learned that the county had no legal authority to require any upgrades to Dickerman Lane as it relates to the temporary housing project.
“If I were trying to divide my property and create another lot, I’d have to widen that road because it’s substandard,” she said. “The county code would require that. My argument with the county is this is not right that you’re not requiring upgrades for safety.”
But under state law, temporary farm worker housing projects fall under the authority of the state Department of Health, which licenses and permits such facilities.
Counties are notified of such projects and asked to submit their regulations regarding building heights, distances they are to be from property lines and other structures and site access requirements.
“Compliance with the local ordinances regarding these three factors is a requirement necessary to obtain licensure,” said Department of Health spokesman David Johnson.
Despite this, Freudenthal says the county needs to better inform nearby residents about such projects upfront.
“They need to do a better job of explaining stuff, what the requirements are, so it’s not creating all this uncertainty and distrust,” she said.
Ultimately, she doesn’t think such housing projects should be placed near existing homes.
“I think they should plan on where the housing should be a little better,” she said. “There are massive amounts of farmland that’s not near anybody.”
Jason Earles, planning section manager for zoning and subdivision for the county, said his department did address neighbors’ concerns about the road, but that the state has final say.
“This is a pretty complicated one,” he said. “I get where they’re coming from – it’s complicated.”
Dragoo said installing the second access road addresses those concerns, and that workers will be moved to work sites in five large passenger vans. As is, workers drive themselves to the orchards in their own cars, flooding the area with traffic at times.
Fazio says these are growing pains that communities will experience as more temporary farm worker housing is developed.
“The state of Washington, and communities, are now coming to grips with an issue that was always there, but is now on the table. Some of the agencies have been great to work with on housing. Unfortunately it is political.”
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