By PHIL ATTINGER

Staff Writer

SEBRING — After more than two hours of discussion Tuesday afternoon, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted down a proposal for migrant housing in Lake Placid.

Commissioners said they want more detail from Aime Alfinda of SB Harvesting on how she and her husband, Salvador Barajas, would handle septic service, transportation, and spatial arrangements when housing workers on 34 acres on Lake Apthorp Drive, north of the town.

Alfinda’s application asked for up to six dwellings, each on a 5.78-acre tract, with up to 60 people each for a total of 360 on site.

She said such housing can legally have up to 144 people per house, under the Department of Health, with a minimum of 50 square feet per person for sleeping and 100 square feet per person of common area.

The project would include gates and fencing, vegetative buffers and landscaping, five acres of wetlands and lodge-style houses to be sold later as single-family homes.

“We want to change the traditional view of migrant housing,” Alfinda said.

Property owners Jedd Garrett and Sage Ashton Gray of Okeechobee asked for a variance because migrants residing there would be working groves away from the property, said Dana Riddell, Planner 1 with Highlands County. If they were working groves on the property, they wouldn’t need a variance.

The project would also house equipment in an enclosed barn onsite, also for use off the property.

{span class=”st”}Alfinda could still come back with detailed plans, Riddell said, but the deadline for the next P&Z meeting in December is next Wednesday.{/span}

{span class=”st”}She said Alfinda, if she has architectural drawings done, would have to wait for the first P&Z meeting in 2020.{/span}

Alfinda said their operation must comply with the Department of Health, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Department of Labor. She said all their workers are either citizens, legal residents or guest workers under the H-2A program.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (www.uscis.gov) states that the H-2A temporary agricultural program lets agricultural employers, who anticipate a domestic worker labor shortage, to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. for those jobs temporarily or seasonally.

Riddell said staff had received 111 letters against the project before the meeting and 12 letters in favor, mostly from citrus growers.

Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, called the proposal an innovative solution to deal with blight from a lack of substantial worker housing.

John Smoak of Lake Placid said his family’s citrus business has used Barajas’ workers for five years, all of whom come through customs and background checks.

He said he’s building a house within a quarter-mile of the site and has no concerns for the safety of his children, including his 14-year-old daughter.

However, Tuesday’s audience of residents from Lake Apthorp Estates or Tropical Harbor Mobile Home Park, both within walking distance of the property, fear increased crime and depressed property values.

Diane Wirick of Lake Placid said her 8-year-old grandson was kidnapped in 1992 by migrant workers. He was recovered “unharmed,” but suffered emotional scars the rest of his life, she said.

She said he now live homeless in another state, addicted to drugs.

She also said a friend of hers was carjacked by a migrant worker, driven to a remote area and raped.

Alicia Pepper of Lake Apthorp Estates said she drives 10 minutes to get groceries for seven, and wouldn’t walk that distance, but said migrant workers, without cars, would walk rural roads or the CSX railroad tracks.

Alfinda said migrants could get a car and use their foreign driver’s license with a federal permit. However, she said most would be bused to groves or grocery stores, and may not want a car.

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