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Nipomo farmworker housing canceled after ‘suspicious’ fire

Donna and Greg France have given up plans to build seven homes in Nipomo to house farmworkers after a suspicious fire on April 6 destroyed one unit under construction and damaged another.
Donna and Greg France have given up plans to build seven homes in Nipomo to house farmworkers after a suspicious fire on April 6 destroyed one unit under construction and damaged another. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The owners of the Nipomo farmworker housing that was damaged by a suspicious fire last week are pulling their plans for the development.

Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berry were in the process of purchasing the Mads Place lots near the 100 block of South Oakglen Avenue. The seven homes would have had the capacity to house about 112 farmworkers, whom the Frances planned to hire through the federal H-2A guest agriculture worker program.

Growers are required to provide housing for workers participating in the program, which can only be used in areas where there’s a shortage of local workers.

Cal Fire is still investigating the blaze, which on April 6 destroyed a home that was under construction and damaged another. The incident hasn’t been ruled as arson, although Cal Fire officials called it “suspicious” and said they’re working with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the fire.

The Frances in a statement Wednesday called the fire a case of “arson” and said “continued threats against the property, our 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.”

Farmer Greg France reads a statement Thursday, April 7, 2016, about the fire that destroyed one house and damaged another in the Mads Place housing development he and his wife bought to house farmworkers in Nipomo.

The couple said they’re working with officials to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who can provide information about the alleged culprit behind the fire.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said the Frances had reported two threats — one against their business and one against them, personally — to the Santa Maria Police Department.

“It will be important for the agricultural community and the community at large to work together to find solutions that will provide quality housing for these hard-working individuals who legally and temporarily come to this country to improve their own lives and the lives of their families in Mexico,” the Frances said. “These workers are also responsible for harvesting the crops that reach our own tables.”

Eleonora Haber lives on Wild Holly Lane, directly behind the burned housing, with her husband and four children. The day after the fire, Haber said she had objected to the housing because she worried about having so many men living near her daughters, but wasn’t happy about the blaze that had burned so close to her home.

On Thursday, Haber said she’s “super happy, excited” that the farmworker housing will no longer be part of the Mads Place housing development. She said she hopes the Frances find a place to house the workers, just not so close to her neighborhood.

“We pretty much thought nothing could be done anymore,” Haber said. “It turned out in our favor, so we’re very, very grateful.”

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