Prosser grapples with proposed housing near wine complex

By Ross Courtney, Yakima Herald-Republic June 26, 2009 

PROSSER -- Tourism requires workers; so does farming.

The people of this small town, which relies on both, are wrestling with where those workers will live.

Catholic Charities Housing Services has proposed building a low-income housing complex right next to a crown jewel of Prosser's fast growing wine tourism industry: Vintners Village, a cluster of about a dozen wineries and tasting rooms.

Both sides are talking, and the housing complex is more than a year from construction. But the issue is prompting this image-conscious city, the first in the state to write agritourism zoning laws, to examine its housing needs.

"The bigger issue in the city in the long run is how we want to approach affordable housing in general," said Charlie Bush, city administrator.

Plans still are conceptual, but Catholic Charities envisions a 50-unit complex of townhouses on 20 acres at the corner of Wamba Road and Old Inland Empire Highway.

It may start as mixed use, with some units reserved for farmworkers, others set aside for laborers in other industries. Senior housing and low-income homeowner residences might follow someday, said Mario Villanueva, executive director of the nonprofit.

The location is a stone's throw to the south of Vintner's Village, which draws throngs of tourists to the city's well-known wine events. The 32-acre area is poised to roughly double in acreage over the next five years or so, with part of its growth area bordering the proposed housing property.

Catholic Charities operates nine affordable housing complexes in Central Washington, most in the Lower Valley. Most are funded by a combination of state funding and private investors seeking tax breaks.

Demand is high. One of the group's developments, a 50-unit complex in Wapato, has 300 applicants on a waiting list, Villanueva said.

In a 2006 statewide survey, 38 percent of farmworkers complained that affordable housing was difficult to find. Nine out of 10 said housing availability might make a difference year to year in where they look for work.

In Prosser, commercial industries, particularly tourism, have exploded in recent years. That's good news for the economy, but housing has not kept up, Bush said.

Cities don't have to encourage low-income projects, but the state's growth management act requires them to make room for high-density housing near jobs.

Catholic Charities' complexes usually look like any apartment building or townhouse development, but they rent to farmworkers making less than half of the area's median income. Some of the units are reserved for seasonal workers.

Villanueva said they are well-maintained and all tenants must pass criminal background checks.

Affordable housing, no matter who builds it or where, commonly meets resistance from residents in this state, said Janet Abbett, a contract manager for the state's Housing Trust Fund, which helps finance projects.

However, tourism is a new neighbor, she said.

"The tourism thing really hasn't butted up against farmworker housing," he said. "That is kind of a new angle."

Backers of the project contend the workers at restaurants, wineries and hotels, both existing and proposed, need to live somewhere. So do those who work at the area's vineyards and orchards.

"Grapes don't turn into wine by themselves," said Marty Miller, executive director of the Office of Rural Farmworker Housing, a Yakima-based private nonprofit that functions as the developer for many of Catholic Charities' projects, including the one proposed in Prosser. "It takes a significant labor force."

Putting them next to the wineries makes their commute easier and might even add a sense of authenticity to Prosser's tourism industry.

"(It could) demonstrate to tourists that not only are communities like Prosser growing with their wine industry, but they're also progressively addressing their work force housing needs," Miller said.

Opponents believe there's a need.

"It's a chore for people to have to drive 20 or 30 miles to get to work," said Larry Olsen, president of Olsen Brothers Ranches, part of a family that has been farming near Prosser for 100 years.

Some of Olsen's employees complain of driving from Mabton and Sunnyside to reach their jobs, Olsen said. The Olsen business is working with the state on its own on-farm worker housing unit for seasonal laborers.

However, next door to tourist amenities is the wrong place, critics say. Prosser's wineries have grown up near the city's two Interstate 82 exits for a reason.

"You want to have those two wings ... as tourist friendly and attractive as possible," Olsen said.

Even attractive housing would not look right, he said.

Olsen is a co-founder of Olsen Estates winery, one of the anchors of Vintner's Village. He said the family has tentative plans for more tourism-related businesses, but he declined to elaborate.

Officials at the Port of Benton, which developed Vintner's Village, also hope the proposed housing development finds a different location.

Low-income housing "is going to take away some of the ambiance of coming into a ... high-end, tourism-related place like Vintners' Village," said Jan Jackson, the port's marketing manager.

Port directors want to someday apply for a rezone to agritourism. Other developers have plans for hotels, bed and breakfasts, boutique cheese vendors and other businesses, if not more wineries, both south and north of the proposed housing development.

"We're trying to protect the rights of our tenants, who have purchased this property and put a great deal of money into it," Jackson said.

The wineries in the area cost between $2 million and $3 million, he said.

Other critics, including Prosser Mayor Paul Warden, say a housing development of any kind would rob the area of commercial developments, which bring in more revenue through sales and property taxes.

Catholic Charities has an agreement to purchase the property, but that's about as far as the paperwork has reached, Villanueva said.

Under the city's long-term plans, which were established long before Vintner's Village, the property is designated for high-density housing.

But for now it's an unincorporated island that would require annexation into Prosser to get water and sewer lines. For that to occur, Catholic Charities must persuade a majority of the island's other property owners to seek annexation.

The group has not applied for annexation yet.

It would not be the first high-density housing development in the area. Right across Wamba Road from the proposed development lies the Village Park subdivision, a neighborhood of manufactured homes that meet the federal poverty guidelines for a community development block grant the city will spend on street and water improvements. Also across the street is Sheffield Manor, a senior assisted living facility.

However, city officials have discussed rezoning the area to agritourism, said Mayor Paul Warden.

"We just haven't got on there and changed the colors on the map yet," Warden said. Warden owns a bed and breakfast at his home across town from Vintner's Village.

If they do, they have to make room for high-density housing somewhere else, Bush said.

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