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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 13th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 17, Issue 6

Farmworker housing in Nipomo burns down, arson suspected

By BRENNA SWANSTON

UPDATE 4/13/16

The Mads Place development will no longer go forward as temporary farmworker housing, according to a news release from Mads Berry Farms owners Greg and Donna France.

The Frances were purchasing the development to house workers for their strawberry farm, but following last week’s fire and a series of threats via comments on news stories and one mailed letter, the couple has decided to pull the project.

“The crime of arson and continued threats against the property, prospective workers and ourselves has raised our concerns about the ability to ensure the safety of the workers and to maintain a safe environment for the neighbors,” the Frances stated in their news release. “We do not want to see anyone hurt, not our workers and certainly not any of the neighbors.”

Cal Fire officials initially confirmed to the Sun that they suspected arson as the fire’s cause, but after further follow-up, officials clarified that the cause is under investigation and arson is a possibility.

California Strawberry Commission Communications Director Carolyn O’Donnell could not confirm whether the Frances will still purchase the Nipomo development, but they will definitely not be using it for H-2A housing, she said.

“They’re just taking it one step at a time,” O’Donnell said. “At this point in time, they are not going forward with having it be housing for badly needed farmworkers.”

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.


A Nipomo house fire last week destroyed an unfinished structure intended for farmworker housing under H-2A, a government program for temporary foreign farmworkers. The cause of fire is still under investigation, but Cal Fire officials told the Sun they suspect arson.


LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE
Rick, a neighbor to the development, said he heard an explosion noise before he saw the house become entirely engulfed in flames.
PHOTO BY BRENNA SWANSTON

The house was being constructed in a seven-home development called Mads Farm, purchased by Santa Maria farmers Greg and Donna France to house workers for their farm, Mar Vista Berry.

Each of the three-bedroom homes would hold up to 16 residents—a plan that didn’t sit well with some of the development’s neighbors, including Rick, who witnessed the fire and requested the Sun not use his last name.

“I don’t like it, just like everybody else,” Rick said. “I don’t mind the people, don’t get me wrong—but go do this somewhere else.”

He said it didn’t make sense to squeeze 16 people into three bedrooms.

“They’re all going to be men, and I’ve got a little kid here, a little girl,” Rick said.

Rick said he heard an explosion noise late on Wednesday, April 6, and when he went to see what was going on, the house “went up like a Christmas tree.”

Cal Fire said the fire was reported at 11:25 that night, and the blaze was knocked down at 11:51 p.m. The adjacent house, also under construction, was partially burnt as well. No one was hurt in the fire.

Rick said he believed an arsonist, likely someone who opposed the Mads Farm plan, was responsible for the incident.

“It went up too quick,” Rick said. “Something was in there. That thing was engulfed.”

Greg France said at an April 7 press conference that he and Donna, who are currently in the process of purchasing the development, were “stunned” by the fire.

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

He said they would continue cooperating with the law enforcement and fire officials investigating the cause of the fire.

“Our family goal remains the safety of this community,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Western Growers Association condemned the potential arson in a strongly worded press release on April 7.

The release said the H-2A program was the only proper channel for the growers to secure an adequate supply of labor for their fields.

“They had no choice but to turn to the federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, after demonstrating that there are not enough U.S. workers who are willing, qualified, and available to do the seasonal agricultural work,” the release said.

The Frances abided by all local, state, and federal housing and transportation requirements in the process.

“It is unconscionable that the principled and lawful actions of this company have been met by an act of criminal violence,” the Western Growers Association release stated. “The actions of those responsible should be condemned by all and must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Rick said that no matter how upset people are about the Mads Farm plan, arson would be going “a little too far.”

“But they’ll keep doing it, whoever’s doing it,” Rick said. “Someone’s pissed. But that’s just too extreme. You’ve got people here with kids and shit. There’s another way to go about it, I’m sure. That ain’t the way.”










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