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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
John Woolfolk, Marisa Kendall, Jakob Rodgers and Scooty Nickerson

Half Moon Bay farm admits worker housing not up to code, pledges fix

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — The owner of a mushroom farm that was the scene of last week’s deadly mass shooting acknowledged Monday that its onsite worker housing — where the accused gunman lived and that a county supervisor had called “deplorable” — wasn’t permitted or up to code and will be replaced.

Terra Garden announced it will construct new permanent home structures on a separate area of the property for its employees and their families, who it said will be provided housing in the area over the next year while the work is underway. A spokesperson insisted the company had been unaware of the requirements governing worker housing.

“This decision came out after collaborative discussions with local officials that uncovered a series of code and permitting requirements unknown before the tragic shootings that occurred last week,” said David Oates, spokesperson for California Terra Garden. “The company expects the development project to take approximately one year to complete and receive all operating state and local permits.”

San Mateo County officials Monday said they are looking into the matter but would not say what specific violations had been found — or why they weren’t found earlier. Oates would not elaborate on why the violations were unknown before the shootings.

The gunman, who lived in a rudimentary shack covered by a blue tarp on the Terra Gardens property, is charged with fatally shooting four coworkers and injuring a fifth Jan. 23 at California Terra Garden off Highway 92 in Half Moon Bay, and killing another three farmworkers at Concord Farms 3 miles south.

Newly elected San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller and County Executive Mike Callagy surveyed both farms after the shooting, and described finding shed-like shacks, trailers resting on cinder blocks, and living quarters without plumbing, showers or kitchens at Terra Garden. Mueller called it “deplorable”; Gov. Gavin Newsom also visited the scene and remarked that people at the farms were sleeping in shipping containers and getting paid $9 an hour without access to health care.

Callagy said he didn’t know much about the specific rules for farmworker dwellings, but that he saw at least one that didn’t appear to have a bathroom or plumbing, which he said isn’t legal.

“Clearly it looks like they were not permitted or authorized or even conducive to a proper and safe living environment,” Callagy said.

Terra Garden’s Oates said last week the farmworker living quarters had been damaged by the powerful rainstorms earlier in the month and that what was seen after the shooting didn’t reflect their earlier condition.

Oates added that California Terra Garden “is grateful for local officials that are working with the company to develop a plan that will provide its employees and their families affordable housing in the area for the next 12 months,” and “will continue providing above-market wages and benefits to all its team members.”

At Concord Farms, workers lived in private rooms within an enclosed building, which Mueller has described as “moderately better,” though he said he wasn’t able to look inside the rooms. But those living spaces haven’t received proper permits either, county officials say.

Concord Farms hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

Although it’s been acknowledged there were many problems with the worker housing at both farms dating back years — including multiple lawsuits over working conditions and a code violation for unpermitted farmworker housing — local officials seem to be unclear about who is to blame for allowing the squalor to persist.

Callagy said the county health department, code enforcement and the city will conduct a joint investigation this week and might red tag the buildings and fine the owners. Half Moon Bay’s mayor and vice mayor did not respond to questions Monday.

Callagy said Monday neither Terra Garden nor Concord Farms had obtained a county farmworker housing permit, so the county had no way of knowing farmworkers were living there. He said the county can’t just show up at a farm and look for unpermitted housing, and mostly finds out about violations from complaints.

“I’m not sure if it’s a matter of dropping the ball, or just not having any idea that this even existed out there,” Callagy said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. But if we’re made aware of it, or if there’s an issue, we do go out and inspect.”

But county officials were aware of failings in at least one of the farms, notifying Concord Farms in 2015 for an unpermitted worker dwelling. Callagy said he was unfamiliar with the circumstances of that case.

BJ Burns, a hay farmer and president of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, said the county inspects his farmworker housing every year, and he believes officials knew about the housing problems at the mushroom farm but looked the other way, which other farmers feel is unfair.

“It was overlooked, and I think was deliberately overlooked, and it’s a dirty rotten shame,” Burns said. “I wouldn’t put my dogs living like that. It’s a dirty rotten crime and people need to be punished and made an example of.”


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