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Shandon farmworker housing project—largest in recent history—gets approval 

The largest farmworker housing project in recent San Luis Obispo County history got the greenlight from a county hearing officer on Sept. 17—paving the way for development on Shandon farmland that could house up to 240 laborers.

Brodiaea Inc.—a Harvard Management Company subsidiary—filed the project application with the county in 2018. The company wants to build 18 modular-style bunks and support structures on its 5,600 acres of vineyards near Shandon.

Matt Turrentine, a local agent for Brodiaea, said that the quarters could serve both his workers and potentially other area workers as well, citing a shortage of farmworker housing throughout SLO County.

"As we look to the future, there's definitely a need in ag areas for some dedicated farmworker housing. We thought that this is a pretty low-impact, and logical and efficient, location," Turrentine said.

click to enlarge MORE HOUSING The largest farmworker housing project in recent SLO County history was approved on Sept. 17. It plans to house up to 240 field laborers on Harvard-owned vineyards in Shandon. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • MORE HOUSING The largest farmworker housing project in recent SLO County history was approved on Sept. 17. It plans to house up to 240 field laborers on Harvard-owned vineyards in Shandon.

The 8 acres of housing would be positioned about 4 miles south of Shandon, on Shell Creek Road. Currently, most field laborers in North County commute to the area from surrounding communities, Turrentine said.

"Unquestionably, there's a lot of farmworker labor in Paso Robles that comes from Santa Maria, or King City, or over in the Central Valley. It's certainly a problem," he said.

According to a county staff report, Brodiaea will develop the project in six phases—with each phase involving three new structures: two sleeping quarters (with 20 people per quarter) and a building with showers, restrooms, storage space, and a kitchen.

Under the conditions of its minor use permit, Brodiaea is also required to include a 60-space parking lot, connect its buildings to domestic water tanks, build a septic and leach field, and install an emergency fire water tank, among other conditions.

The Shandon Advisory Council, which represents the community of Shandon to the county, is opposed to the project as proposed.

In an April 2019 letter to the county, the Shandon Advisory Council wrote that the addition of 240 farmworkers to the community represented a 20 percent increase to its 1,200-resident population, which could overstress medical, law enforcement, and fire services. Those services are "inadequate to the current population," the council said.

The council also expressed concerns that Brodiaea may not be using seasonal foreign workers under the H-2A program for the housing, "allowing for heavy traffic on backroads by hiring outside of the area."

"This type of out-of-area hiring can lead to loitering within our school area [and] excessive drinking and gambling in the park. This issue has been an ongoing problem during grape season ... . The addition of 240 more single men could lead to a safety issue within the community," the letter read.

Regarding the type of farmworkers the project is designed to serve, Turrentine said it could house either H-2A or domestic laborers—"we don't have a plan for that," he said.

"I think it's safe to say we don't really know what the future holds," he said. "We just don't envision a future where this isn't going to be needed for us."

The project can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. As of press time, an appeal had not been filed.

Brent Burchett, executive director of the SLO County Farm Bureau, voiced his support for the project and farmworker housing in general. In 2020, SLO County eased restrictions on farmworker housing development to try to stimulate more projects. Brodiaea's project was subject to the old rules since it dates back to 2018. Despite the new framework, no other such projects are in the county's pipeline, according to officials.

"We are proud to see more housing going in with this Shandon project, and hope others will follow," Burchett told New Times in an email. "The scarcity of housing for agricultural workers in SLO County continues to strain our farmers' ability to stay in business." Δ

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