What started as a single complaint about traffic resulted in the county of San Luis Obispo ordering shut a beloved but unpermitted farm stand, the single source of income for a hardworking Laotian refugee family.
Thanks to an outpouring of support from customers, however, the county announced Tuesday that farmers Chan ChaoPharn and Meui Saelee will be granted temporary relief and can continue to operate the stand outside Paso Robles for the rest of the growing season. Next year is another story, as the couple negotiates county rules to find a place where they’re allowed to run a business.
Every day during the past three growing seasons, ChaoPharn and Saelee have driven two hours to work in Paso Robles from their family home in Visalia, where they have raised five children. The husband-and-wife team tend their crops on 3 acres of leased land and sell their hand-picked bounty a few miles away at their increasingly popular farm stand at the corner of Charolais and South River roads.
In April, just weeks into what would be their fourth year offering strawberries and other produce out of the plywood booth, a county code enforcement officer stepped up to the counter with a daunting announcement.
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“They were going to shut down my stand, and I’d lose everything that I’d put in,” ChaoPharn said.
The county Planning and Building Department had discovered that businesses aren’t allowed in that specific area of the county. The operation also didn’t meet county requirements for a farm stand: That at least 50 percent of the produce sold must be grown on-site.
An order to close the farm stand by the end of May was devastating. Without the stand, the couple worried how they would sell their produce. Community members worried, too — about where they would buy such high-quality strawberries and visit with their friends, and about what would happen to the farmers.
“This is their only income,” Paso Robles resident Nancy Peck told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in a plea to keep the business open. “If you grant them the rest of the summer, you will save the crops that will otherwise die on the vine.”
The county agreed to allow the couple to stay open until Oct. 1, persuaded by community support that included 903 signatures on a petition written by Peck, dozens of calls to the planning department and to Supervisor John Peschong.
“This is a relief for me. I feel great. Thanks a lot to the people that came to defend me. Thank you to the customers,” ChaoPharn said when he got the news.
An odd ordinance
The problem with the county isn’t just that ChaoPharn and Saelee don’t have a permit for their business. It’s much more complicated than that. It’s the kind of complicated that makes Americans grumble about red tape and bureaucracy: Zoning ordinances that community members helped write years ago, but few people remember why.
A 20-year-old land-use ordinance created standards for a few subdivision called Spanish Camp Area, a rural neighborhood of ranchette-style homes around Spanish Camp Road. The rules allow for crops and grazing, homes and storage buildings. It does not allow businesses that aren’t based out of a home.
“It’s unusual to have that short list. But it’s been on the books for a long time,” said Karen Nall, a county supervising planner.
The landowner or leaser could petition the county for a zoning change but it would cost at least $10,000 because of required environmental and traffic studies — or the Board of Supervisors could make the change.
Even if the zoning was changed, the farm stand couldn’t operate without growing food on-site, which isn’t possible because there’s no water. So, they hope to find a new spot to sell next year’s crop.
“We have some flexibility, but we still need to apply our ordinances consistently,” Deputy Director of Planning Bill Robeson said.
A place to grow
ChaoPharn and Saelee aren’t strangers to being forced to pick up and move.
They were children when their families fled Laos to Thailand during the Vietnam War. There, they were pushed into a refugee camp surrounded by barbed wire, where they lived for five years. The two families were a few buildings apart.
“It was like living in a boot camp,” Saelee said.
ChaoPharn said the United Nations asked his parents and family members three questions. If they answered right, “you get to come to America.”
They came to the United States in 1980 or 1981; ChaoPharn became a citizen about three years ago.
America means “opportunity,” Saelee said. “It’s really been a blessing to be here.”