On its website, the Mads Farm housing development in Nipomo is described as “a neighborhood based on childhood memories,” with porch swings, front-yard fruit trees and “homes that reflect the spirit of family.”
But a plan to use that “happy little cul-de-sac” — another of the website’s catchphrases — as much-needed farmworker housing is leaving several neighboring residents less than pleased.
Santa Maria-based farmers Greg and Donna France have purchased the seven-home development on Mads Place, a small cul-de-sac off South Oakglen Avenue, to house workers for their strawberry fields.
Each of the three-bedroom, two-story homes is expected to house as many as 16 people, for a total of about 112, through the 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.
Requests for comment from the Frances were directed to Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of the agricultural trade association Western Growers. (The Frances’ agricultural management company, Red Dog Management, is a member of the association.)
They are not troublemakers. They are good citizens.
Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of agricultural trade association Western Growers
Resnick said the country is experiencing a shortage of farmworkers as existing workers leave and don’t return, and fewer new workers enter the country to take their place. According to Resnick, the H-2A program reduces the impact of that shortage on local agricultural industries by providing growers with a larger pool of temporary, seasonal workers.
“These people come here for the opportunity to earn a much better wage than they could in Mexico,” Resnick said. “They want to come here to make a better life for themselves and to help support their families, just like us. They are not troublemakers. They are good citizens.”
The plans for Mads Place have angered some of the development’s neighbors, however, 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 at its meeting Monday night, asking for help stopping the owners.
Gray Hartley, who lives next to the development on South Oakglen Avenue, said he became aware of the situation when he saw trucks delivering bunk beds to the three completed houses (four others have yet to be built). Before that, he assumed the homes would be filled by families like other houses in the neighborhood.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was astounded,” he said. “I thought there had to be some mistake. I just couldn’t imagine it.”
Hartley said he worries the dense population of about 112 workers will be a disruption in the neighborhood by increasing traffic and after-hours noise, as well as posing a potential safety issue.
“We just don’t have a high-density environment here,” he said. “My neighbors and the community here on South Oakglen would like to see the property that was obviously built as a single-family residence have single families living here, because that’s what it is zoned for, that’s what it’s built for, that’s what it’s comfortable as.”
The county’s regulations haven’t specified how many people can live in a single-family home since the 1980s, said San Luis Obispo County Planning Director Jim Bergman. Before that, the county limited the number of unrelated people living in a home to five, but it changed the rule following a state Supreme Court decision that found the government couldn’t place a cap on the number of unrelated people living in a house.
Since then, the county has used the California Building Code, which loosely restricts occupancy for similar buildings to 16 people, though that is policed as a code violation on a complaint-driven basis.
My neighbors and the community here on South Oakglen would like to see the property that was obviously built as a single-family residence have single families living here.
Gray Hartley, Nipomo resident
Because of this, the Frances do not need to seek either county or public approval for their plan to house workers at the Mads Farm development and can proceed despite any objections.
County Supervisor Lynn Compton, who represents Nipomo, said she met with representatives of the couple in January, when they alerted her that they were planning to use the development to house workers; at that time, the representatives were considering more than the current plan of 16 people per home.
Compton said she was hesitant about the idea, because she worried it would upset neighboring residents.
“People have an expectation that the homes are going to be single-family, and who is going to live in them,” she said. “And this, in my opinion, it’s like a college dorm coming in. I understand the concerns.”
Compton said she’s divided on the issue, however, because she is also sympathetic to the Frances’ needs to have workers to pick strawberries, and to eliminate the need for busing their workers up from Oxnard as they now do.
“It’s definitely a dilemma,” she said. “There’s no solution right now for what’s going on, and I feel sorry for everybody involved. It’s just not a good scenario.”
Both Bergman and Compton have proposed that the growers and neighbors meet to try to reach a compromise that will work for all involved, but so far no such meeting is planned, Compton said.
Though the county can’t do anything about the situation, Compton said she thinks the county should look into drafting an ordinance that regulates farmworker housing or sets aside separate zoning options for such projects to help prevent similar tension in the future.