County aims to allow more farm worker housing

Island County is looking to make it easier for farm owners and operators to build housing for their laborers.

Planning staff last week presented recommendations to the planning commission for clarifying the current regulations and increasing the flexibility in response to a benchmark study on the need for farm worker housing.

The state allows and issues licenses for temporary worker housing, but the county code language on the subject is vague.

Local farmers indicated a strong interest in being able to have housing on-site for seasonal workers or adding a house to be able to pass the farm down among generations, planner Meredith Penny told the commission. To meet the need, staff recommended allowing the housing type in rural, rural agriculture and commercial agriculture zones, and they must be on the site where work is occurring.

Staff proposed two categories: seasonal-duration and permanent housing. Seasonal-duration units for 10 or more people are required to be licensed by the state Department of Health. This type of housing for nine or fewer people has the option to be licensed by the state or comply with the county’s somewhat stricter regulations for permanent worker housing.

The regulations would include requirements to reduce the negative impact on agricultural activity, to be located in land participating in the Open Agriculture Tax Program and to conform to building code standards, in addition to health and safety requirements. RVs, trailers, yurts or tents would not be allowed in this category.

Orchard Kitchen and Orchard Farm owner Vincent Nattress spoke last Monday about his need for laborers in the high season and the challenges seasonal workers face trying to find a place to live. His farm is located in the rural zone, where this type of housing isn’t yet allowed.

“I think it’s sort of a pressure valve to relieve some of the need we have for housing in Island County,” Nattress said.

Planning staff are also working on creating regulations for temporary housing for workers in other industries.

The changes will need to be brought to the board of county commissioners before approval.

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