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Grower Expected to Get Permits for Farm-Worker Housing

Times Staff Writer

After months of regulatory delay, a major grower in North San Diego County is expected to be granted county building permits next week to begin construction of much-debated housing for farm workers.

The planned housing, which has generated considerable interest throughout California, is being built by Oceanside-based Singh Farms with the stated purpose of avoiding the defection of laborers newly legalized under the government immigration amnesty program.

Throughout the West, growers long dependent on undocumented labor have voiced concern about the prospective loss of newly legalized farm workers who may decide to take jobs in less-taxing and better-paying industries. With spring and summer approaching, officials are watching the labor market closely.

While praised by farm groups and some farm-labor advocates, the proposal by Singh Farms also ran into strong opposition from area residents concerned about clutter, crime, traffic and other problems. Some activists also expressed fears that such housing could be used for future “guest workers” to be brought in from Mexico especially for farm-labor tasks. Company officials denied any such plans.

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The considerable opposition resulted in lengthy delays for a project that was first expected to be built last year.

However, after a series of hearings and appeals, Singh Farms appears to have passed its final hurdle. The building permits are expected to be granted next week, said Gloria Kelly, regional planner with the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use.

Construction of the $1.5-million facility should be completed in about five months, said George Williamson, a planning consultant for the project. Grading has already begun on the 4-acre site in rural Bonsall, next to Oceanside.

“As soon as the permits are pulled, they want to start getting that thing up,” said Williamson, who works with the Lightfoot Planning Group in Oceanside.

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The project, designed to house more than 300 workers, is to include a pair of two-story residential buildings, each outfitted with bunks. Other rooms will be used for dining, laundry, storage, bathrooms and recreation, officials say.

The housing will be open only to workers for Singh Farms, which cultivates about 700 acres in San Diego County.

Responding to various concerns, Williamson said, Singh has agreed to make a number of modifications to its initial plans. Among other things, he said, the company will now provide more street lights and expanded recreational areas, and will make added improvements in streets.

The planned housing development for migrants has not spawned any copycat proposals in San Diego County, where thousands of farm workers live outdoors in crude shacks and hovels that, experts agree, constitute some of the worst migrant-labor living conditions in the United States.

“I think a lot of employers who might have thought about providing housing looked at the incredible hassle that (Singh) went through and decided they wouldn’t want to go through the same thing,” said Wendy Dietrich-Benz, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, an industry group.

San Diego County’s $500-million farm industry ranks it among the nation’s top-20 agricultural counties, she noted.

Although conditions in barracks-type farm-worker housing has often been found to be substandard, migrant advocates note that it is still a considerable improvement over living in the brush. Also, the facilities are subject to state and federal inspection.


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