To the befuddlement of the artists and craftsmen who worked there, more than 30 officers from various county departments--guns drawn and clad in body armor--stormed a now-defunct chicken farm south of Arroyo Grande on Dec. 17, apparently to enforce fire codes.
"I would have thought that they were looking for Osama Bin Laden," said Steve Beuley, an artist who has rented space on the property for about five years.
The buildings are essentially renovated chicken coops built in the 1930s. Tenants openly acknowledge that they aren't up to code, but say they had permission to use them until they're demolished.
An inspection warrant had been issued in response to several violations observed by the fire department in the fall, when officials responded to a small fire at the woodshop of John Brigham, a craftsman who makes unique furniture from recycled materials. The men working inside the building were able to quickly extinguish the blaze, but the firefighters discovered living quarters along with several buckets of flammable lacquer and paint.
According to Andy Andersen, a State Fire Marshal spokesman, there wasn't a clear path to exit the building. Exposed wiring and old wood, coupled with too few fire extinguishers, created a dangerous situation, he said.
"Our biggest fear," Andersen said in an interview "is a fatality from the public--who we are supposed to protect--or a firefighter."
"Tuesday was the most dangerous day out here," Brigham countered, referring to the semi-automatic weapons on display. "There have never been more possibilities for death and destruction."
Andersen said the force was justified because and officers had no idea what they were walking into.
The property still looks surprisingly like a chicken farm, with 17 coops/barns--18,000 square feet apiece--scattered around the dirt lot. Three known businesses had been operating at the site, one for more than a decade. Andersen said that the Board of Supervisors had sanctioned the Brigham woodshop, a similar shop, and a mushroom farm.
Andersen said, however, that rented storage spaces on the property were apparently being illegally sub-leased for various other purposes. Enforcement officials said they found several auto shops, a music studio and rehearsal space, and some dwellings.
Along with a slew of fire code violations on the property, the raid revealed three separate living quarters, two-and-a-half pounds of dried marijuana in a backpack, and two men with outstanding warrants. According to Andersen, one of the men was wanted for assault with a deadly weapon. He was found allegedly living in one of the barns, and reportedly had an unloaded rifle at the time of his arrest. Aside from the pot, no property was seized during the raid.
In light of the apparent legality of the mushroom and furniture operations, the county has begun to backstep.
Just three days after the raid, Andersen said that his agency wants nothing more than to help get the woodshop and the mushroom farm up to code.
"To me, this is really embarrassing," the artist Beuley said. "My family saw me on TV and said, 'What's going on?'"
Now, little seems quite as scandalous as it did immediately following the raid. Talk of an illicit bar discovered on the property turned out to be based on a sign that appeared to be a joke and fewer than a dozen bottles found in the recording studio. And talk of a discovery of 50-gallon drums filled with unknown chemicals was also overdone--the drums were empty diesel containers.
"I think what we saw here was the beginning of martial law in San Luis Obispo," Brigham said. "The show of force was so excessive. They could have just called."
One of Brigham's long-time employees, Karl Lundeen, said that the fire department has been to the property for inspections more than once.
"They've been here at least two times in the past couple of years," Lundeen said. "The fire department came out here and checked out all our buildings. They told us to put up exit signs over the doors, and we did, but they never came back to check. So we were pretty surprised by this."