A proposal to allow temporary housing for migrant workers in semi-rural areas of northern San Diego was approved Monday by the City Council.
The 7-2 vote, which could lead to construction of the housing, came after a long and contentious hearing in which proponents and opponents agreed on only one thing: Something must be done about the squalid camps inhabited by migrants near expensive neighborhoods such as Rancho Penasquitos and Rancho Bernardo.
"They understood the sad situation in which we are living," said Heriberto Rodriguez, the leader of 60 migrant workers from a McGonigle Canyon camp who sat stiffly in the unfamiliar confines of the council chamber, awaiting the vote. "They understood that we have the right to live decently."
The four-hour proceeding was filled with emotional moments:
* Two Mexican workers strummed guitars and sang a ballad in Spanish to council members, describing their struggle for humane living conditions.
* Recalling his youth as a farm worker in Riverside County, Councilman George Stevens denounced agricultural employers, who he said have "lost the decency" to provide for laborers who are paid minimum wage.
* Angry homeowners from the Rancho Penasquitos, Rancho Bernardo and Carmel Valley areas, along with several candidates for political office, argued that the proposed municipal code amendment to allow the temporary housing violates laws requiring a popular vote for any development occurring in the city's urban reserve.
However, the council majority sided with Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, who said the amendment will help the city regulate and create housing for about 3,000 farm workers and day laborers now living in makeshift camps.
The council-approved proposal calls for developers or social service groups seeking to build temporary housing for migrants to undergo a lengthy review in order to obtain a permit. Under the plan, mobile housing for migrants will be permitted at individual sites for five years.
"Our rural work force are human beings, not animals," Wolfsheimer said. "Many of them have been here for 11 years. If we don't take care of our rural work force, it will have a detrimental impact on the community in terms of health, safety and economics."
The council modified the measure before approving it, passing Councilman Tom Behr's motion to exempt 4,000 acres of city-owned land in the San Pasqual Valley.
Rather than allowing temporary housing initiatives in that part of his council district, Behr said, the city should do more to pressure farmers who lease the land from the city to house their employees.
Three-quarters of the North City area's migrant population lives in camps on privately owned land that was unaffected by that modification, migrant advocates said.
The proposal, which returns to the council for final approval next month, is a victory for migrants but does not mean that new housing will be built soon.
Homeowners said after the meeting that opponents are likely to file a legal challenge on the grounds that the vote violates a law known as Proposition A, requiring a vote of the people before development can occur in the city's Future Urbanizing Zone.
Citing those objections, Councilwoman Judy McCarty said, "It may be a good cause, but you still don't give up good land-use planning."
McCarty and Councilman Ron Roberts voted against the amendment.
City Atty. John Witt told the council that the amendment is not a violation because it permits only temporary housing in response to a health and safety emergency posed by the camps.
Even if there is no lawsuit, other obstacles face Esperanza International, the nonprofit agency that pushed for Monday's action and is developing a $2-million worker housing proposal that would replace the McGonigle Canyon camp.
Council members made it clear that it will be extremely difficult to come up with funds from the city's strained budget for migrant housing.
Esperanza will ask for federal funds instead, the agency's president, Steve Feher, said.
He also welcomed Mayor Maureen O'Connor's decision to form a committee of homeowners, advocates and a representative of the migrant workers.
"This will get us together with the neighborhoods and start the healing process," he said.