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Opposition forces officials to resume search for new site

Burbank Housing officials have succumbed to fierce opposition from Geyserville residents, dropping plans to build housing for migrant farmworkers in a vineyard across from an elementary school.

Housing advocates said Thursday that despite being rebuffed in Geyserville and thwarted in Cloverdale and Sonoma previously, they remain committed to finding another site for the project, which would serve vineyard workers up to 10 months of the year.

Ideally, they said, it would be built in Dry Creek Valley or Alexander Valley, premiere wine growing regions where seasonal workers are highly concentrated.

"The idea is to build consensus for it. Clearly, we were not going to get consensus in Geyserville," said John Lowry, executive director of Burbank Housing, a nonprofit agency that specializes in developing affordable housing.

On Tuesday night at a sweltering meeting at the firehouse, Geyserville residents blasted the idea of putting the 60-bed dormitory-like facility close to an elementary school, saying it was "idiotic," would threaten schoolgirls and drive down property values of nearby homes.

Only a couple of people expressed support for the project, although more than 70 residents came to the packed meeting, which was designed to gauge sentiment on Burbank Housing's plan.

"Any male dormitory next to a school is not a good idea," said Sandy Elliott, president of the Geyserville Unified School Board, which unanimously opposed the project.

Some opponents threatened to picket the project, sell their homes and leave Geyserville if the facility was ultimately approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

But the few who spoke in favor of it said there were misconceptions about the Latino men who would live in the project and unfair stereotypes that they would prey on women.

"These people are part of the community, working hard. They're not likely to be out all night doing damage to the community," said Susan Lentz, a Healdbsurg grape grower and attorney who chairs a group to find housing for farmworkers.

The meeting at the firehouse was the first time Burbank Housing had unveiled the $3million housing project that they intended to build before turning it over to the California Human Development Corp. to operate.

The nonprofit CHDC runs three similar housing facilities for migrant workers in Napa Valley, which have been touted as successful models.

A manager lives on site, there are strict rules against alcohol and drug use, and the workers pay $11.50 a day for a bed, meals, central bathroom and shower facilities.

In Napa Valley, a grower-initiated, yearly tax of up to $10 per acre helps subsidize 220 beds for migrant workers.

But in Sonoma County, the only specific housing for migrant workers is provided by a handful of leading grape growers who have built bunkhouses for more than 700 of their own employees over the past decade.

Sonoma County officials estimate there are more than 5,600 farmworkers in the county and 70 percent of them lack decent housing.

Burbank and CHDC intended to draw on state funds targeted for farmworker housing, programs that date back to the 1930s when Dust Bowl refugees from Okalahoma flooded into California seeking work.

Lowry said Thursday that one lesson he learned from Geyserville is that the eventual project probably will need to be built farther out in the vineyards. He said county officials need to loosen zoning regulations to facilitate viable farmworker housing projects. Currently county regulations allow for up to 38 beds in an agricultural zone that can be on a septic system and draw well water.

But Lowry said the projects need to be bigger to make onsite management and supervision economically viable.

Supervisor Paul Kelley, who represents the northern part of Sonoma County, said Thursday he is not convinced the county regulations need changing.

He said the amount of housing that grape growers are providing "seems to be adequate at this point."

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