Sunday, February 18 , 2018, 11:27 pm | Fair 52º


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Farmworker Housing in Nipomo Damaged by Suspected Arson Fire

Cal Fire investigators believe blaze at construction project was deliberately set

Donna and Greg France, farmers and project owners, at the scene of Nipomo housing under construction intended for farm workers. The development was struck by a suspected arsonist late Wednesday night, destroying one unit and damaging another.
Donna and Greg France, farmers and project owners, at the scene of Nipomo housing under construction intended for farm workers. The development was struck by a suspected arsonist late Wednesday night, destroying one unit and damaging another. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

The future of a controversial farmworker housing development in Nipomo remained unclear Thursday, the day after a late-night fire believe to be arson destroyed one partially constructed home and damaged another. 

Firefighters responded to the blaze in the 100 block of Oakglen Avenue at 11:24 p.m., and found one two-story structure engulfed in flames they were able to quickly contain, according to a Cal Fire release. Damage estimates were unknown.

Neighbors said smoke and debris from the flames damaged their vehicles and forced them to flee for safety.

Cal Fire prevention Battalion Chief Zach Nichols said Thursday that authorities believe the fire may have been arson.

“All the indicators point to an intentionally set fire,” he said. “But we’ve got samples being sent off to be analyzed to confirm.”

Nichols said the absence of any utilities, such as gas and electricity, that could have caused such a fire is one of the primary reasons authorities believe the fire may have been intentionally set. The pattern of how the fire spread also supports this theory.

Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berry in Santa Maria are in the process of purchasing the Mads Place lots that will be used for farmworker housing. 

Each of the seven three-bedroom, two-story homes was expected to house as many as 16 people, for a total of about 112, through the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program, which brings in foreign workers to perform agricultural services where there is a shortage of domestic workers.

Under the federal program, employers are required to provide housing for the seasonal workers free of charge, and must provide transportation to and from the workplace, among other requirements.

However, the plans for Mads Place have angered some of the development’s neighbors, who say they worry about traffic, safety, property values and population density in the neighborhood.

A group of about 50 concerned residents addressed the San Luis Obispo South County Advisory Council on March 28, asking for help stopping the owners. 

On Thursday, Greg France’s voice was choked with emotion as he told reporters that he and his wife were “saddened and stunned” by the fire. He said he and his family had been part of the Nipomo community for eight years and had spent 25 years in the Santa Maria area. 

“We are family farmers trying to do the right thing by providing quality housing for our workers, who are visitors to this country,” France said.

The Frances had hoped to address residents’ concerns one-on-one Saturday during a community walkthrough, France said, and remain committed to maintaining a peaceful environment for neighbors and workers.

The family needs to take some time to figure out how to proceed with the development and will allow law enforcement to handle the situation, France said.

The Frances said the Mads Place properties are in escrow. Pinetree Development LLC has been the owner of the lots, according to the San Luis Obispo Assessor’s Office. A Pinetree Development official was not available Thursday.

The Western Growers Association issued a statement Thursday condemning the alleged arson, saying the Frances were following federal regulations in trying to provide proper housing for their workers.

“It is unconscionable that the principled and lawful actions of this company have been met by an act of criminal violence,” association president Tom Nassif said in the statement. “The actions of those responsible should be condemned by all and must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Jennie Rodriguez lives in a Mads Place home next to the burned housing with her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. She said her brother, who lives across the street from Mads Place, saw the blaze and called her late Wednesday night.

Rodriguez and her family evacuated their home until the fire was out. The wind blew debris and smoke onto her property, damaging vehicles and a trailer, she said.

Given the neighborhood’s response to the housing, Rodgriguez said she thought extra precautions should have been taken.

“Why didn’t they bring security to protect us?” Rodriguez asked. “They jeopardized our families.”

Shannon Riddering and Eleonora Haber both live with their husbands and children in homes on Wild Holly Lane, directly behind the destroyed and damaged units. Haber said she was awakened by the glow from the fire and looked out her window to see the structure in flames.

Riddering said she took her family outside for safety, and both women said they sprayed their trees and fences with water to keep them from catching on fire.

Haber and Riddering said they’re opposed to the development, and are concerned about the potential impact it might have on their neighborhood. Both had read angry comments about the housing online, but were surprised anyone would go so far as to set the structures on fire.

“It really endangered our properties and our safety,” Haber said.

Fourth District San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Lynn Compton expressed sadness over the fire Thursday, thankful that no one was harmed or injured. She added that she has been working to mediate a resolution between the owners and the neighbors.

In her statement, she commended firefighters and sheriff’s officials and asked anyone with information about the incident to call 805.459.7867.

[Click here to read more from the San Luis Obispo Tribune]

Lindsey Holden and Kaytlyn Leslie are reporterss with the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Contact them at [email protected] and [email protected]

A farmworker housing project under construction in Nipomo was struck by a suspected arsonist late Wednesday night. Click to view larger
A farmworker housing project under construction in Nipomo was struck by a suspected arsonist late Wednesday night. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)
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