The aroma of charred wood hung in the foggy morning air of a Nipomo cul-de-sac on April 6. The remnants of a burnt house-frame sat next to two other homes on Mads Place, one under construction—which was singed from the fire—and one already finished.
Along with four other homes, the development was meant to eventually house approximately 112 migrant farmworkers for Donna and Greg France, who own Mar Vista Berry and were purchasing the residences to provide housing for their temporary workers.
But because of what Cal Fire suspects to be arson (the investigation is still ongoing) and several threats made against the Frances, their workers, and the development, the Frances announced their decision to ash those plans on April 13. In a statement released through the California Strawberry Commission, the Frances said they were concerned about their ability to ensure the safety of their workers.
“We do not want to see anyone hurt, not our workers, and certainly not any of the neighbors,” the statement reads. “Our struggle to do the right thing by finding a quality housing solution will be repeated by others in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and throughout the state as farmers face a growing labor shortage in this country.”
Each of the three-bedroom homes on Mads Place would have held up to 16 workers, and those plans upset neighbors like Rick, who witnessed the fire and didn’t want to give New Times his last name. He said the structure was engulfed in flames around 11:30 p.m. on April 5 and embers were spraying into the sky.
“I don’t like it, just like everybody else,” Rick said of the development. “They should have went and did this somewhere else. This is residential. I don’t mind the people, don’t get me wrong, but go do this somewhere else.”
Rick echoed the thoughts of his neighbors, who attended a recent South County Advisory Council meeting to voice similar concerns.
At a press conference following the fire, Greg France said he and his wife were “stunned” by the fire. Meanwhile, the Western Growers Association condemned the arson in a strongly worded press release. The release said that the H2-A program, which the Frances secured their temporary workers through, was the only proper channel for growers to find an adequate and legal supply of labor for their fields.
But as part of that program, growers like the Frances need to house those workers. Carolyn O’Donnell, the California Strawberry Commission’s communications director, said that the circumstance the France’s found themselves in is unfortunate.
“It really is part of a larger issue, which is a lack of affordable housing,” O’Donnell told New Times.
Fourth District Supervisor Lynn Compton brought up the issues surrounding the development at the April 5 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, making a motion to place options to address temporary worker housing on a future agenda—including amending some of the county’s zoning requirements or developing an ordinance to address commercial uses in residential zones.
“This situation at Mads Place in Nipomo is an unprecedented situation for our county: to put 112 employees in a residential neighborhood. I believe taking a close look at these zoning requirements and offering amendments is vital to protecting the residential character of our neighborhoods,” Compton wrote in an email to New Times after the decision was announced to cancel plans for the development.
In their release, the Frances said they are offering a $10,000 reward to anyone with information that could lead to an alleged arsonist’s arrest.
“Violence and intolerance are never the solution and we are saddened to have seen it emerge in our community of Nipomo,” the Frances said.
—Brenna Swanston, Jono Kinkade, Camillia Lanham