SEBRING — A zoning hearing for a labor camp near Avon Park Air Force Range pointed out two facts: residents don’t want a dozen migrant workers close to their homes, and the 199 labor camps in Highlands County don’t house as many workers these days.
Dannia Sanchez and Jesus Mendoza requested a special exception for farm labor housing — exceeding two persons — from the Zoning Board of Adjustment at a Tuesday afternoon hearing for a camp on a five-acre parcel at 5151 Michon Path.
How many workers would live in the house at one time, asked board member Bette Tiernan?
“Twelve,” Sanchez specified. Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and four migrant workers to each.
What about misbehavior, Sanchez was asked.
“They are migrant people,” she said. “They come here to work.”
How long is the season, Tiernan asked.
More than six months, Sanchez said.
What was the purpose of clearing the land, board member Thomas Roberts asked.
“To make it look a little nicer,” Sanchez said.
Seven people opposed the permit. “From the day they got the place,” said neighbor Tony King, “they cut down the trees and turned it into a labor camp. I’ve been there when there were 15 people, playing basketball, walking up and down the roads and all over the place. It is not what she portrayed it. To mislead you like that is wrong. They work on vehicles out there. They are always painting school buses in the open. They’re turning into a truck-stop-type atmosphere.”
“The area is a (quiet) family-oriented neighborhood,” Marcella and Henry Lancaster wrote. “To have this kind of activity so close to our homes will destroy the neighborhood. Farm labor housing with large equipment and many people in one home is not appropriate in a residential area. There are children living in this area. They walk Michon Path to get to the bus stop. Some ride horses on Michon Path. Also, Michon Path is a dirt road; the heavy equipment will ruin the road.
“We moved here from Fort Lauderdale to our current address in 2000. One of our main reasons,” the Lancasters said, “was to get away from this sort of thing. Large businesses and noise. Also, I am certain that our house values will go down … would this be something that the (board) members would want next to their homes?”
“This is kind of opening Pandora’s box,” said board member Dave Travers.
The state health department has permitted 199 camps in Highlands County, said Pamela Crain, public information officer. That’s the same number as two years ago.
However, the number of pickers has dropped from 3,185 in 2015 to 2,914 this year, Crain said. “There are coincidentally the same number of camps… The health department has not made any changes to the allowances.”
“My educated assumption is that there may be just fewer members on crews than there used to be, because there is less demand for their services,” said Raymond Royce, executive director of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.
The final forecast for Florida’s 2016-2017 citrus season shows the orange crop — and Highlands County grows mostly oranges — falling 16 percent from the previous season. That’s a five-decade low.
A winter and spring drought, combined with the continued fight against a deadly citrus disease and the expansion of residential development made this season “like a biblical plague,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
At the zoning hearing, Travers moved to deny the special exception. The vote was 6-0.
“I’m sorry,” said Joan Mack, who chaired the meeting. “Your application has been denied.”