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Planning commission makes way for re-zone of Diocese housing units

With a hesitant "yes" vote, the Sunnyside Planning Commission recommended approval last night of a re-zone request for 51 migrant housing units near Sheller Road and North 16th Street.

Expressing fears of a "ghetto," Planning Chair Brent Cleghorn reluctantly seconded a motion recommending the housing complex proposed by the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services.

If later approved by the city council, the application will change zoning from R-2 to a planned unit development (PUD).

Just over a year ago, the Diocese was denied a higher density R-3 zoning for the initial 51-unit proposal.

In an R-2 zone, the Diocese could still have built the 51 units on the seven-acre parcel, but all construction would have been in duplex form.

With the re-zone to a PUD, the Diocese would be able to construct the same number of units in three and four-plexes, reducing construction costs and opening up more green space for the families who will live there.

The reduced costs would in turn enable the Diocese to build new houses in Biloxi, Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, noted John Probst, Development Coordinator for the Diocese.

But Sunnyside residents living near the proposed migrant worker housing complex expressed concern and outrage during public hearing testimony on the rezone application.

One resident remarked that he thought the area would turn into a "ghetto," a term later repeated by Cleghorn. "What you're proposing is Crewport," the resident said. "Do you know what Crewport is? That's where farmers pick up the crew to go to work. Who picks up the tab for this? It's not the farmer."

Dawn Avenue resident Cherie Morrow, who drives a school bus for the Sunnyside School District, expressed concerns about traffic and the city's water supply.

Noting additional traffic from Sierra Vista Middle School, set to open for classes this fall, Morrow said the addition of up to 102 vehicles at the Diocese project-each of the 51 units will be allowed to park up to two cars on the housing property-will increase congestion at the intersection.

Morrow also asked about the city water supply.

"Our water has been undrinkable," she said of an oily substance she found in her tap water. Noting the city is already selling water for natural gas drilling outside of town, Morrow said she was concerned about Sunnyside's water supply since the new school and the 51-unit development will both hook up to the system.

City Planner Jamey Ayling replied that the substance found in the water is the result of excess minerals being flushed out of the city's water system. He noted that the pull of water for natural gas drilling from a city well near the airport has helped to stir up the minerals.

Regarding "ghetto" concerns over poor quality in construction, or in maintaining the worker housing complex, Probst told the planning commission the quality of materials in the Sunnyside project will hold up well.

"The quality will rival any home built in Sunnyside," Probst said. He added that the Diocese has signed on to maintain the development for 44 years, and that an on-site supervisor will be hired to monitor the complex once families move in.

Cleghorn reminded the audience that the Diocese had the ability to go forward with the 51-unit project under existing R-2 zoning. Since the Diocese has signed on to a development agreement, he added, the project will be limited in scope to 51 units.

Planning Commission Vice Chair DeAnn Hochhalter admitted that Diocese housing she has seen elsewhere is an improvement over other migrant worker housing options.

Cleghorn encouraged Probst to make sure Sunnyside residents currently living in substandard housing are given first shot at the new rentals. Probst pledged that the Diocese would advertise only in the local paper, the Daily Sun News, and on a local radio station when it recruits tenants.

With the PUD zoning recommendation and development agreement in hand, the Diocese will appear before the Sunnyside City Council at a later date for a final decision on the project.

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