Agriculture has a long history in Chester County, and it continues to be vitally important to both the County's economy and culture. As determined in the 2008 Penn State Economic Impact Study, Chester County ranks second among Pennsylvania counties in agricultural production. The County's 61 mushroom farms account for 47 percent of total U.S. mushroom production and contribute an estimated $2.7 billion to the local economy including sales, farm employment, taxes paid by farms, and the value of service industries that support mushroom farms. Chester County's dairy farms rank fifth in dairy revenue generation in Pennsylvania with total farm revenue in 2007 of $68 million, representing 12.3% of the value of total agricultural products sold in the County. Dairy farms in 28 County municipalities contribute an estimated economic impact of more than $247 million, with 85% of the money spent within the local community. More information is available through the Agricultual Development Council.
Chester County's mushroom production represents by far the largest contributor to the County's agricultural economy, and mushroom farm workers face specific challenges regarding access to quality housing. In order to sustain the long-term viability of agricultural operations in Chester County, municipalities in agricultural, rural, and suburban municipalities should ensure access to quality, affordable housing to accommodate farm workers and their families through local comprehensive plans, zoning regulations and subdivision and land development ordinances.
Farmworker housing provisions in municipal land use plans and ordinances can provide the following benefits:
- Provides support for local agricultural businesses by ensuring year-round housing opportunities for their employees;
- Conserves energy because it provides housing close to the farmworkers' place of employment, thus minimizing travel costs and fuel consumption; and
- Helps to sustain municipalities by providing stability for low-income families.
The following limitations may be associated with farmworker housing ordinances:
- The municipality may need to overcome community resistance typically encountered when planning for affordable housing;
- Regulatory barriers within its code of ordinances (such as standards that encourage large lot, single-family subdivisions) will need to be reconsidered; and
- The vast majority of farmworkers in Chester County are employed within the mushroom industry and a large majority of mushroom workers are Latino. Municipal officials must ensure that discriminatory attitudes or actions do not limit housing choices for members of the farmworker community.
- Comprehensive Plan: The comprehensive plan of a municipality within the agricultural, rural, or suburban landscape, where farming has a significant presence, should identify the need to provide for farmworker housing as a component of its housing plan. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code requires that a municipality must provide for different dwelling types "for households of all income levels". This should include workforce housing for all the occupations needed in the community, and specifically quality housing for farmworkers. The comprehensive plan should also identify within its implementation strategy any revision(s) required to its code of ordinances in order to meet the goals and objectives of the housing plan.
- Zoning Ordinance: The standards for farmworker housing need to be incorporated into a municipal zoning ordinance. Consideration should be given to providing farmworker housing as either a by-right permitted use, or a by-right accessory use to an existing agricultural operation, in accord with specific area and bulk, density, and other design requirements. Ordinances should also consider providing for farmworker housing either on or off the farm. Ideally, farmworker housing will be integrated into the larger community.
Municipalities that have specifically addressed farmworker housing in the Housing Plan components of their comprehensive plan include the following:
- Oxford Region Multimunicipal Comprehensive Plan (comprised of Oxford Borough, and East Nottingham, Elk, Lower Oxford, Upper Oxford and West Nottingham Townships): This Plan, adopted in 2012, recognizes the need for workforce housing for the occupations needed in every community, including farmworker occupations. The housing plan component of the plan recommends that the municipalities coordinate with agricultural employers and non-profit housing providers to assist low-income workers access housing that meets local building quality and occupancy standards.
- Kennett Township: The housing plan component in the Township's 2004 Comprehensive Plan provides specific recommendations on improving zoning regulations affecting the provision of farmworker housing, along with supporting the Kennett Area's initiatives with regards to farmworker housing and the mushroom industry
- Octorara Region Comprehensive Plan (comprised of Atglen and Parkesburg Boroughs, and Highland, Londonderry, West Sadsbury and West Fallowfield Townships): One of the housing objectives of the Octorara Region Comprehensive Plan is to allow for housing types that will support the needs of the agricultural uses in the Region.
Municipalities that have incorporated specific provisions for farmworker housing in their zoning ordinance include the following:
- East Fallowfield Township: The Township permits dwellings for farm employees and their families as a by-right use in the RA Rural Agricultural zoning district, and as a permitted accessory use in the R-1, R-2, and R-3 Residential districts.
- Elk Township: The Township permits accessory agricultural dwelling units for farm workers or family members of the associated agricultural use as a by-right use in all districts where agriculture is the principal use of a lot, in accord with Section 1202.D of its zoning ordinance, which is available at the Township office.
- Highland Township: The Township permits accessory agricultural dwelling units, as a by-right permitted use in all zoning districts, in accord with Section 603.C of its zoning ordinance, which is available at the Township office.
- Kennett Township: Housing for farm workers, in accordance with Section 1904 of the Kennett Township Zoning Ordinance, is permitted by special exception in the SA Specialized Agricultural and LI Limited Industrial zoning districts. The Specialized Agricultural district specifically accommodates mushroom production and housing for farmworkers.
- London Grove Township: The Township permits agricultural employee housing when accessory to uses permitted in intensive and extensive agricultural operations, in accord with Section 27-303.14.B of its zoning ordinance.
- Section 301.(a)(2.1) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) states that a municipal or multimunicipal comprehensive plan shall include a housing plan to meet the housing needs of present residents and of those individuals and families anticipated to reside in the community, including the accommodation of expected new housing in different dwelling types and at appropriate densities for households of all income levels. Section 604.(4) of the MPC states that municipal zoning ordinances shall provide for residential housing of various dwelling types encompassing all basic forms of housing.
- The Seasonal Farm Labor Act was enacted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1978 in order to improve the conditions of seasonal farm workers by establishing standards for their wages, hours, working conditions, housing, sanitation, food facilities, fire protection and safety.
- The US Department of Agriculture, Housing and Community Assistance
One of the primary goals of Landscapes2, the 2009 Chester County Comprehensive Plan is to "provide diverse and affordable housing options countywide, consistent with the principles of Smart Growth and sustainability, to meet the needs of all households." Decent, affordable housing for farm laborers is required in order to support the continuing success of mushroom growing, crop agriculture, and equine operations in the County, and improving housing opportunities for migrant and year-round agricultural workers is a primary objective of Landscapes2. Additionally, this tool promotes energy conservation, which is one of the primary objectives of Landscapes2, because it supports local housing for workers in proximity to their place of employment.