The future of a controversial Nipomo housing development for farmworkers remains unclear after a potential arson fire late Wednesday destroyed one partially constructed home and damaged another.
Firefighters responded to the blaze on the 100 block of Oakglen Avenue at 11:24 p.m. and found a two-story structure “fully involved” in a blaze they were able to quickly contain, according to a Cal Fire news release. Damage estimates are unknown.
Neighbors said smoke and debris from the flames damaged their vehicles and forced them to flee for safety.
All the indicators point to an intentionally set fire. But we’ve got samples being sent off to be analyzed to confirm.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Zach Nichols
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 occupied by 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 people, through the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program, which brings in foreign workers to perform agricultural services where there is a shortage of domestic laborers. 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.
We are family farmers trying to do the right thing by providing quality housing for our workers, who are visitors to this country.
Greg France, Mar Vista Berry
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 South County Advisory Council on March 28, asking for help in stopping the owners.
On Thursday, Greg France’s voice was choked with emotion as he told members of the media 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 walk-through, Greg 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.
It really endangered our properties and our safety.
Eleonora Haber, neighbor
The Western Growers Assocation issued a statement Thursday condemning the suspected arson, saying the Frances were following federal regulations in trying to provide proper housing for its 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, Rodriguez 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 are opposed to the development and are concerned about the potential impact it might have on their neighborhood. Both had read angry comments online about the housing but said they were surprised anyone might have gone so far as to set the structures on fire.
“It really endangered our properties and our safety,” Haber said.
Fourth District Supervisor Lynn Compton expressed sadness over the fire Thursday and thankfulness that no one was injured, and she said 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 fire to call 549-7867.