Comstock pushes forward on greenhouse's controversial housing plan for migrant workers


    The Comstock Township Planning Commission approved a rezoning ordinance to make it easier for greenhouses and farms to construct housing for its migrant workers.

    On Thursday night, the planning commission voted to approve an ”overlay housing district for migrant labor." This would allow Wenke Greenhouses to apply for establishment of the Agricultural Labor Housing Overlay District on a property, which the company needs to move forward with plans to build more housing for migrant workers next to its greenhouse operation.

    The township commission was scheduled to consider final approval of the rezoning request on April 15.

    Wenke Greenhouses created plans to build housing for male migrants near their Comstock Township operation, but it was already delayed because the board voted to place a moratorium on the development of agricultural labor housing in January.

    The moratorium was expected to last for six months as written, though it could be lifted earlier than that.

    "The process has been a little more bumpy than anticipated," Wenke said.

    Workers were already living in four existing houses that Wenke owns, sitting on three parcels of land adjacent to the greenhouse operation. The company told the commission they want to build additional houses behind those, on the same parcels.

    "Right now we have 30 people living in the housing. The other people working for us are living in Grand Rapids and are being transported from Grand Rapids. We're still exploring when and if construction needs to be happen," said Jeff Wenke, co-owner of Wenke Greenhouses.

    The Planning Commission waited months to vote on the ordinance after it chose to amended the language, after receiving comments from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

    Agustin V. Arbulu, Michigan Department of Civil Rights director, wrote a letter dated Jan. 3 advising the township the development would need to be non-discriminatory housing.

    “U.S. workers, including women and workers with families, have the legal right to be recruited first for jobs by employers participating in the 2-HA program. We do not, and you should not, favor the use of H-2A workers or temporary foreign agricultural workers when they will take jobs that could go to local or domestic migrant and seasonal farm workers,” the letter states.

    In a letter dated Jan. 11, Arbulu wrote to the township attorney Catherine Kaufman, "We would view any application approving construction of housing for single individuals as discriminating against domestic workers and their families under ELCRA ( Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act)."

    In response, the planning commission altered the language.

    "Comstock has been proactive in trying to address the concerns," said Catherine Kaufman, Comstock Township's attorney.

    A letter, dated Mar. 10 and addressed to members of the Comstock Township board, Arbulu suggested he would be "Happy to convene a meeting of various stakeholders with regard to the proposed amendments. Such groups would include Fair Housing Center (Kalamazoo), Farm Bureau, Farmworker Legal Services and Michigan Immigration Resource Center."

    Meanwhile, some residents still voiced their opposition against the plan Thursday.

    "If this starts, where's it going to stop," said Chris Daniels, a Comstock Township board member.

    Many residents said during a December meeting, they are worried about safety and believe migrant workers will not benefit the community.

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